There may be more Republicans in New Orleans this weekend than at any time since the GOP held its convention in the city in 1988, but the conversation at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference is all about 2010 and 2012.
The several thousand faithful attending probably won't want to talk too much about 2008, the year that cost them the White House, or 2006, the year they lost control of Congress and the last time the SRLC convened.
(Time out for a quick question: At the 2006 SRLC meeting, who won the straw poll for president? Answer in a moment.)
This year, everything seems different. To be sure, the power centers in Washington remain in Democratic hands and the hated health care bill is now law, but Republicans see each of these facts as eminently changeable.
Sky-high Republican hopes for 2010 are nowhere higher than in the South. Polls show Republicans leading in seven of the eight Southern states electing governors this fall. Republicans are also favored to hold all but two of their Southern Senate seats (and those two, Kentucky and Louisiana, could well wind up in GOP hands as well). Beyond that, Republicans expect to gain House seats in most Southern states and expand their holdings in state legislative chambers as well.
Next stop? Ousting President Obama in 2012 and repealing the health care law, of course. And if all that seems a hurdle or two premature at this point, it all looks downright inevitable from the standpoint of Southern Republicans. They know all about coming from nowhere to take over.
In fact, if there is a year from the past that people will be talking about at the SRLC event, it's 1994 — the best year Republicans have had in the South since Reconstruction. In an unbroken line stretching back to the 1800s, Democrats held the majority of Senate seats, House seats and governorships in the Southern states. Usually by wide margins. Until 1994.
On one November day that year, Republicans captured the majority in all three categories. And they have remained on top ever since. Even the reversals of 2006 and 2008 did not dislodge their dominance in Dixie.
That regional surge was the single largest factor in tilting control of the House and Senate from the Democrats to the Republicans. In the case of the House, it was the first Republican majority in 40 years.
The leader of that House takeover was Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who then served four years as speaker and since has toured the country and airwaves as a freelance guru of the right. Gingrich was a featured speaker on the first night of this year's SRLC and told the crowd 2010 had all the earmarks of another 1994. It was a big hit.
But the ultimate goal for attendees here this weekend is to seize back the White House. The South actually began voting Republican for president well before it did so for statewide offices or seats in Congress. Herbert Hoover carried the region in 1928 (against Catholic Al Smith) and Dwight Eisenhower did it in the 1950s. The habit really set in with Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the pattern held for Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and both Presidents Bush. As it has become the richest source of Electoral College votes for the GOP, the region has also become accustomed to deciding the party's nomination.
That explains why the SRLC, begun in the 1980s, can now call itself the most significant party gathering taking place between the quadrennial nominating conventions. And it also explains why presidential hopefuls come to SRLC, or, in some cases, think better of it. A good showing here is great, but failing to meet someone's expectations can hurt.
Among those testing their national appeal this week are host Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and neighboring Govs. Haley Barbour (Mississippi) and Rick Perry (Texas). But just as notable are those who are giving the expectations game a wide berth. Three men presumed interested in the 2012 nomination will not be on hand.
Mitt Romney spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference in January and got clobbered in the subsequent straw poll, so he may have been wary of offering his chin in this particular ring. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another also-ran at CPAC, is greeting troops returning from Iraq this weekend. He sent a videotaped address. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, now a Fox News commentator, has also sent his regrets.
The man who won that CPAC straw poll, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is in New Orleans for SRLC. But his contingent may have a harder time shining through at a meeting of party regulars, especially given the competition from the weekend's headliner, Sarah Palin. Does it strike anyone as odd that the candidate getting most of the attention at this Southern confab comes from the northernmost state in the Union?
Back in the 2008 primaries, Romney wound up among the finalists, along with Huckabee and eventual nominee John McCain. But none of these men won the straw poll the last time the SRLC got together in 2006.
That honor went to Bill Frist, who was then the Senate majority leader. Meeting in Frist's home state of Tennessee, the SRLC gave him 56 percent to Romney's 14 percent. But Frist retired from the Senate that same year and cut short his presidential foray.
Finishing third back in 2006 day was another GOP senator, George Allen of Virginia, who lost his re-election campaign for the Senate that fall and left politics. Allen's star fell with record speed, in part, because he referred to an Indian-American man at a public event as "macaca," stirring a racial controversy that never entirely went away.
Race remains a sensitive issue for Republicans, particularly in the South, and its cloud was visible again this week. Republicans arriving in New Orleans had to answer questions about their national party chairman, Michael Steele, and the scandal over staffers and donors spending big bucks at a sex club. The latest Steele scrape makes people uneasy in part because he is the party's first African-American chairman, a fact he alludes to regularly.
The discomfort surrounding the Steele question was not relieved when, on the eve of the SRLC, Virginia's GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell had to walk back a "Confederate History Month" proclamation that lacked the usual denunciation of slavery. He called it "an omission."
For generations, Democrats had to deal with the implications of their reliance on white "Dixiecrats" — the cornerstone of their congressional majorities. Now, the white "Dixicans" who have taken their place are the base from which the contemporary GOP hopes to build national majorities in the future.
Just another reminder, as if one were necessary, that the issue of race cannot be ignored in current politics any more than it can be omitted from history.