Which Republican Landslide?

A vote for pragmatism.

Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Republican Party's triumph yesterday was both deep and broad, encompassing two chambers of Congress, several state capitals and assorted demographic groups. The depth of the victory reinforces concerns about the nature and future of Republican conservatism; its breadth offers the promise of a more inclusive and moderate party.

Republicans deepened their reliance on the South, driving some of its dwindling white Democratic members of Congress out of office and intensifying the party's regional base. The South's 50-year transformation from Democratic to Republican bastion is essentially complete, with state and national Republican victories in Georgia and North Carolina disproving predictions that a Democratic resurgence, based on demographic and generational change, was at hand. The dominance of the Republican Party's Southern wing -- more conservative culturally, more rigid ideologically and more committed to full-scale opposition to government in general and President Barack Obama in particular -- does not bode well for compromise or problem-solving in Washington.

Yet an emergent wing of the party, weakened and battered in recent years, showed surprising strength yesterday. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, who has eschewed the symbolic crusades of Washington Republicans for more pragmatic fare, won re-election. So did moderate Republican governors in Nevada and New Mexico, while Republican gubernatorial victories in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts give the party important stakes in some of the most liberal states in the union.

To state the obvious: The political interests of a moderate governor from the Northeast, Midwest or Southwest differ from those of the party's base in the South, where distrust of government has a unique history. Newly re-elected Ohio Governor John Kasich, for example, facilitated the expansion of Medicaid in his state as part of the Affordable Care Act, as did Snyder. Republican governors in the South have joined congressional Republicans in sabotaging the law in hopes of making it fail.

The question now is whether a growing cadre of pragmatic Republican state executives will have more influence on the national party. The answer is not clear. Republicans in Washington benefit when voters lose faith in government's ability to function. Gridlock may be a national affliction, but it is a partisan advantage, which helps explain why Republicans have pursued it so zestfully.

Having just been rewarded with additional power for their role in keeping Obama in check -- and Washington from addressing climate change, crumbling infrastructure and other issues -- congressional Republicans may see no incentive in cooperating with the White House. Yet if they want to expand the electoral map to win the next presidential election, they should.

In his victory speech in Kentucky last night, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict." Political conflict is built into both the two-party system and the U.S. Constitution; perpetual conflict, on the other hand, is a choice. It's well past time for McConnell and his colleagues to make a different one.

(Update, 4:15 p.m.: Corrects second paragraph to note that the South's transformation has occurred over 50 years, not 70.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.