With a month to go before the November midterm elections, top GOP strategists anxious about preserving their Senate majority decided it was time for a firewall. And the firewall they built ran right along the classic fault line that has characterized American politics since before the Civil War.
They decided the Republican incumbents battling for their lives north of the fault line — Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Mike DeWine in Ohio and Conrad Burns in Montana — would rise and fall on their own. The party's available resources would be concentrated instead on three other endangered seats where the odds were more favorable: in Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri.
In each of these cases, polls suggest, the party was choosing its better bets. Incumbents Jim Talent in Missouri and George Allen in Virginia are running even or better against their Democratic challengers, and Republican nominee Bob Corker is not far behind his in Tennessee (where Bill Frist is retiring).
But it is also no coincidence that all three are on the same side of the notional Mason-Dixon divide that split the country long before the Civil War. The GOP chose to defend the South, which has become the bastion of the party first formed to abolish slavery and uphold the federal union.
Surely the Northern and Southern groups of embattled Republicans are not divided by any bright line of ideological difference. Chafee is a liberal Republican, to be sure, but Santorum defines the right wing on virtually every issue. DeWine and Burns' records are much closer to Santorum's than to Chafee's.
Yet these four men represent states where a strong tide of revulsion is running right now against the Iraq war, the Bush administration and the Republican Party. Their counterparts to the south of the Great Divide may experience some of this same turbulence, but not nearly to the same extent.
In American politics, region has often been destiny. And that truth still holds.
Today, the 11 states of the Confederacy (plus adjacent and like-minded Oklahoma, Missouri and Kentucky) have 28 seats in the Senate and elect Republicans to all but four of them.
All 14 of these states voted for George W. Bush — twice — most of them by landslide margins. In 2004, their pool of votes in the Electoral College went to Bush 179 to 0 and was two-thirds of the total he needed to win the White House. (In the other 36 states, Kerry won by a lopsided tally of 251 to 107 in electoral votes.)
This year, the chasm between the regions will only become more pronounced. In the Northeast, where Republican House members are already minority, they are becoming an endangered species. As many as a dozen Republican incumbents are at risk from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania. Go west as far as Ohio and Indiana and you add six more. In these states, the number of Democratic House members sweating re-election is literally zero.
Go south, however, and the tidal wave ebbs. A few Republican incumbents look shaky (two in Kentucky and Florida, one or two in North Carolina and Texas). But there are also a few take-back opportunities here for the GOP, in Georgia and Louisiana. Amazingly enough, these appear to be the only House seats in the entire country the Democrats are in danger of losing this year.
In other words, the South is the only region in the country where Republicans still seem to have even a chance of breaking even going into the 110th Congress.
As any student of U.S. history knows, regional realignment was a long time in coming. With few exceptions, the Southern states went with the Democratic Party, up and down the ballot from president to Congress to county sheriff, for roughly a century. It wasn't just the long memories, either. It was the region's savvy appreciation for how poorer, less populous states might maximize their power in Washington. The South knew it had more punch if it voted as a bloc and kept its representatives in office for decades, building seniority and dominating the committee chairmanships.
But the old ways began to weaken at the presidential level in 1948, as the postwar Democrats began to shift on civil rights. When Lyndon B. Johnson drove through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Republican Barry Goldwater voted against it, five Southern states deserted to Goldwater in that year's presidential vote.
In 1968, five Confederate states voted for Republican Richard M. Nixon (as did Oklahoma, Missouri and Kentucky). In 1972, every state in the region went Republican, setting a new pattern of dominance that has prevailed since with few exceptions.
It took longer to extend this new calculus to congressional elections. Until 1994, Democrats held the lion's share of the region's Senate and House seats, as they had since Reconstruction. But the GOP stormed to the majority in both chambers on that fateful day in November. They have not relinquished it since, and they are not likely to do so soon.
But while the South stands solid for its new party of choice, the Northeast is rapidly becoming a reverse mirror image. And the West Coast is retaining a 3-2 Democratic advantage that may get steeper yet this fall. That leaves the upper Midwest, Plains and Mountain states as the battlegrounds where both parties can compete — and where majority control in future sessions of Congress will most likely be determined.
Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.