WASHINGTON The budget battles rocking the capital have exposed a deepening fault line within an already fractured Republican Party: the divide between the GOP’s solid Southern base and the rest of the country.
That regional split became evident when members of the House of Representatives cast votes last week on a budget deal designed to avoid massive tax hikes and spending cuts: Almost 90 percent of Southern Republicans voted against the “fiscal-cliff” compromise.
At the same time, a majority of Republican representatives from outside the South supported the deal, which was approved in large part because of overwhelming Democratic support.
The GOP’s geographic schisms burst anew after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, canceled an expected vote on a $60 billion disaster relief package for victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., accused his party of “cavalier disregard” toward New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential GOP presidential contender in 2016, lashed out at what he called the “toxic internal politics” of his party’s House majority, noting that Republicans had speedily approved support for storm relief in “Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama …”
Boehner moved quickly to smooth things over, but the upheaval was a reminder that divisions within the party could play an influential role as the new Congress begins to tackle Washington’s top agenda items, including an attempt in coming weeks to avoid a national debt default and President Barack Obama’s promised effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
The image projected by the battles in the House – the only part of the federal government controlled by Republicans – could influence public attitudes toward the GOP and its candidates heading into the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest.
In particular, the South’s pre-eminence could pose challenges to national GOP efforts to broaden the party’s appeal on social and cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
“An increasing challenge for Northeastern Republicans and West Coast Republicans … is the growing perception among their constituents that the Republican Party is predominantly a Southern and rural party,” said Dan Schnur, a former GOP campaign strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“There’s always been a political and cultural disconnect between the South and the rest of the country. But as the parties have sorted themselves out geographically over the last few decades, the size of that gap has increased.”
To an unprecedented degree, today’s Republican majority in the House is centered in the South. The GOP enjoys a 57-seat advantage across the 11-state region that stretches from Texas to Virginia.
Outside the South, however, it’s a different story.
As a result of reapportionment and the 2012 election, the GOP no longer controls a majority of non-Southern congressional districts. In the last Congress, Republicans held a slim, two-district majority in non-Southern states; now Democrats have a 24-seat edge.
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