What Happened to Mountain Republicans in the South?

Even when Democrats dominated the so-called Solid South, the GOP showed strength in mountain areas of the region. Northwestern Arkansas, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and western Virginia all had substantial Republican sympathies.

But now that the national Republican Party has transitioned from the Party of Lincoln to the party of the Old South, are mountain Republicans rethinking their partisan allegiance, or have they simply lost clout in a changed party?

Mountain areas of the South never embraced slavery the way agricultural areas did. That is one reason why residents of mountain counties tended to support the union and the GOP, the party of union.

Of course, not all GOP nominees in mountainous areas won election. But Republican nominees in those areas generally outperformed their party’s nominees in Old South areas.

For example, only one congressional district was competitive in Arkansas in the 1928 elections. The Ozarks-based 3rd district in northwest Arkansas elected Democrat Claude Fuller over Republican Sam Cecil (58%-42%). Interestingly, Fuller was born in northwest Illinois and spent the first decade of his life there until moving with his family to northwest Arkansas.

Fast forward to 1964, and only one Arkansas district was competitive, the 3rd located in northwest Arkansas. That district turned Republican two years later with the election of John Paul Hammerschmidt in 1966.

Hammerschmidt, who served 13 terms in Congress, remained the lone Republican in the state’s delegation until Ed Bethune was elected from the Little Rock-based district in 1978.

In the early 1980s, Virginia’s two most western (and mountainous) districts were represented by M. Caldwell Butler and William Wampler. Butler was more moderate and open to bipartisanship than Wampler, but both were reflected the tradition of pragmatic mountain Republicanism.

North Carolina’s 11th District, the state’s most western, has seen its share of strong partisan fights and partisan flips. Democratic for years, the Blue Ridge Mountains district went Republican in 1980, Democratic in 1982, Republican in 1984, Democratic in 1986, Republican in 1990, Democratic in 2006 and Republican again in 2012. Its current member, Republican Mark Meadows, leads the House Freedom Caucus.

Conservative senator Jesse Helms carried North Carolina’s western district in his 1972 and 1978 races, but only narrowly – a reflection of the area’s more moderate/less Dixie preferences. By contrast, Helms did best in rural areas of eastern North Carolina, which once were solidly Democratic.

Perhaps the best example of mountain Republicans in the South has been in Tennessee. The eastern third of The Volunteer State, which opposed secession, has been reliably Republican for decades. Western Tennessee, on the other hand, supported secession and was much more southern, ideological and reliably Democratic.

Republican senators from the state have often come from East Tennessee, and they oozed pragmatism. The list includes Howard Baker, from pro-union Scott County in northeast Tennessee, Bill Brock, from Chattanooga, in the southeast corner of the state, and both of the state’s current senators. Lamar Alexander grew up in Maryville and Bob Corker grew up in Chattanooga and served as the city’s mayor. (Brock began his career as a Reagan activist but eventually settled into the establishment.)

Fred Thompson was born in Alabama and grew up in south-middle Tennessee. But he came to the Senate from a career in acting and law, and he was a close associate of Baker. On Capitol Hill, Thompson often was an ally of Arizona’s John McCain.

Bill Frist was born and grew up in Nashville, but one of his grandfathers helped found Chattanooga. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Medical School, Frist spent time at Massachusetts General and Stanford University School of Medicine. He may have come from Middle Tennessee, but he fit the East Tennessee mold.

Most of these GOP senators were regarded as “establishment” officeholders who preferred pragmatism to a narrow world view. They were also less “southern” than their Tennessee Democratic colleagues.

As the South underwent partisan realignment, the nature of the Republican Party in the region changed. Conservative voters in the South’s rural and growing suburban areas left the increasingly liberal Democratic Party and gravitated to the GOP, bringing along their more traditionally Southern views, whether on race, culture or the role of government.

Did this development produce any reaction in mountain GOP areas?

So far, there are few, if any, signs that mountain Republicans in the South are uncomfortable with their evolving party. In fact, Republican voters from these areas seem to be moving to the right along with other GOP voters in their states.

This certainly appears to be the case in East Tennessee, where voters continue to have a strong regional identity but also seem comfortable voting the same way that voters in West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee do.

“East Tennessee has more in common with West Virginia than with West Tennessee,” argues Tennessee native Ward Baker, former NRSC executive director.

GOP campaign consultant Brad Todd, a former Tennessee Republican Party executive director, points out that East Tennessee’s voters always had a populist steak even if their political leaders did not. That made it easy for those voters to feel comfortable with the national GOP as it moved to the populist right. (Donald Trump carried 94 of the state’s 95 counties in the 2016 presidential primary, losing only Williamson County, the wealthiest county in the state, to Marco Rubio.)

If Republicans from the mountain areas in the region have lost some of their uniqueness as the GOP has grown in the South, they have also lost something else more important: the political clout they once had in their states.

In Tennessee, for example, the growth in the GOP statewide has diluted the influence of East Tennessee Republicans. In the 1970s, says Todd, East Tennessee made up 60 percent of the Republican statewide primary vote. That number has dropped dramatically as the state’s Republican Party has grown, particularly in other parts of the state.

The same development is obvious elsewhere.  In Arkansas, the once heavily Democratic southern and eastern parts of the state are now very conservative and Republican. And in Virginia, an exploding population in the Washington, D.C. suburbs has re-made the state’s electorate.

Many mountain Republicans in the South continue to vote as their grandparents and great-grandparents did, and they continue to have a strong regional identity. But shifting party coalitions and population growth are limiting their clout.

Retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s Senate open seat creates an interesting contest in a probable GOP primary. If Eastern Tennessee is going to select another GOP nominee, the region will need to line up behind a single hopeful in a large field that includes many candidates from the western two-thirds of the state. Otherwise, a more confrontational and ideological Republican could be headed to Capitol Hill. Right now, that seems likely.

How a Tweet Got Me in Trouble

Almost two months ago, in early August, I wrote a tweet that generated plenty of reaction – little or none of it positive. New York Post Columnist Salena Zito even used it to write a column about how reporters view working-class voters.

The only problem is that Salena, like others, took the tweet completely out of context and therefore didn’t understand what I meant.

The tweet – “Lots of people can’t support themselves or speak English in West Virginia” – certainly could sound like a gratuitous shot at West Virginia or at the less educated and less affluent. But not if you knew the context.

Here is what happened:
I often “live tweet” Donald Trump’s rallies and speeches, and that’s exactly what I was doing on August 3rd. (When there is a significant live event, I see Twitter as a communal activity, as if a bunch of people are sitting around, watching a sporting event and making comments about it.)

Usually, I quote the president, but sometimes I simply offer a comment or response to something he says, figuring those watching along with me will get my point. Twitter allows only 140 characters, after all, and it’s difficult to quote a lengthy sentence and also add a comment.

In this case, my “controversial” tweet followed Trump’s comments about immigrants and his plan to restrict their entry into the United States.

Here is what the president said at his West Virginia rally: “Our plan favors applicants who can speak English, who can support themselves financially, and who demonstrate valuable skills that will strengthen our economy.” (You can see the speech and audience reaction on a C-SPAN video at about 38 minutes into his speech.)


As soon as Trump uttered those comments, I turned his words around and tweeted “Lots of people can’t support themselves or speak English in West Virginia.”

My point, of course, was that many of the people at that rally, and in the state, are not all that different from the immigrants hoping to come to the United States.

The president was talking about excluding people who might need a government handout in a state where many also need a government handout. (West Virginia ranks 48th in household personal income.) And Trump was prepared to discriminate against immigrants who don’t have command of English in a state that ranks 42nd in percentage of high school graduates.

The irony of the situation apparently was lost on Trump, his supporters at the rally and many who read my tweet, including too many who had no idea what the president had said or how my tweet played off his remarks.

My Twitter mistake was in not understanding that people might read my tweet without knowing how and why it came about. For some, of course, even understanding the context of the tweet wouldn’t matter. They simply wanted to find some reason to be offended and outraged, a hook on which to hang their virulent anti-Semitic insults.

I will try to be clearer in the future when I tweet, but anyone who uses Twitter knows that it is impossible to make a serious argument in 140 characters. The platform simply is not suited for that. I try to be entertaining (often using sarcasm) even when I point out hypocrisy or make a political point, and I do not expect that will change. So, my advice to anyone following my tweets: Follow along and lighten up.

Winner of the GOP’s Civil War? The Democrats

The Republican Party has been divided before. There was Robert A. Taft versus Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater versus the moderate establishment, evangelicals versus pro-business Republicans, and more recently the Tea Party/Club for Growth/Freedom Caucus versus the GOP establishment.

But the current divide in the Party of Lincoln looks deeper and filled with more animus than ever.

Ultra-outsider Roy Moore looks to have an edge over establishment-backed Sen. Luther Strange in the September 26 Alabama GOP Senate runoff, and other insurgents are lining up to go after incumbents or establishment-backed Republicans in next year’s primaries.

The party establishment, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, and supported by some deep-pocketed backers, has no choice but to devote considerable time and resources to these internal struggles.

Spending millions of dollars to fight off challengers from within the party isn’t an ideal way to spend your time, but it’s better than handing over the GOP to the most ideological and uncompromising in the party.

Preventing the nomination of another round of Todd Akins, Richard Mourdocks, Christine O’Donnells, Joe Millers and Ken Bucks is important to help retain Republican Senate seats and new opportunities, but it’s also a way of preventing the party from marginalizing itself completely.

Nominating Moore in Alabama would not cost the GOP a Senate seat in the general election, but nominating Kelli Ward in Arizona probably would.

More importantly, electing more confrontational conservatives, like Moore, Ward and Chris McDaniel of Mississippi, would help shape the national image of the GOP. Donald Trump has already done some of that, but nominating and electing more Tea Party/Freedom Caucus types would damage the party’s reputation even further in all but the most Republican and conservative states.

McDaniel, you may remember, ran against Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, finishing just a hair under the 50% mark, which forced a runoff. Cochran won that runoff and went on to hold the seat in November, in part because plenty of Democrats supported the establishment Cochran in the runoff.

Now, McDaniel is mentioned again as a Senate candidate, this time as a possible primary challenger to GOP Sen. Roger Wicker.

I remember seeing McDaniel and two other conservatives – Ben Sasse and Idaho congressional hopeful Bryan Smith – introduce themselves to a meeting of conservative, free market campaign contributors and activists early in 2014. It was enlightening.

Sasse, who that cycle was elected to the Senate from Nebraska, talked about his background and experience, discussed his view of government and made a few funny comments to connect with the crowd and show that he was personable.

McDaniel (and Smith, who eventually lost his primary challenge to incumbent Republican Rep, Mike Simpson) talked mostly about the Founding Fathers and how the GOP establishment and Republicans-in-name-only were destroying the party and the country. He made little attempt to introduce himself except for his ideology. He wanted to show how committed and uncompromising he was.

A civil war now looks unavoidable for the Republican Party. And the likely fallout is obvious.

Where the establishment wins, insurgents will complain that the system was rigged or wealthy contributors bought the election. Embittered and only loosely tied to the GOP, many of those voters will walk away after the primary loss.

Where insurgents win, party insiders and pragmatists will be frightened. The winners will clean house, installing true believers in state party posts. In turn, the defeated will sit on their checkbooks in the fall, maybe even forget to vote.

Either way, the GOP loses.

“Not this time,” some will say, arguing that the partisan divide is so deep that the McConnell wing and the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus wings will eventually come together to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats.

Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Independents are likely to be turned off by Republican infighting, and a civil war, with each side lobbing accusations at the other, rarely ends happily. There will be enough open political wounds to give Democrats opportunities they otherwise would not have.

I’ve been around long enough to see more than a few political circular firing squads. I’m seeing another one form, this time within the GOP.

Clues for a Wave? A Look at the Generic Ballots of 2006 & 2010

Given President Donald Trump’s controversial start, it’s no wonder friends and foes alike are already buzzing about his impact on the 2018 midterm elections. It’s still early in the cycle, but not too early to look at what various indicators say about the two parties’ prospects.

Presidential job approval and the right direction/wrong track questions are most often used to track changes in voters’ attitudes, but the generic ballot test is also useful.

The generic ballot question traditionally has asked respondents whether they plan to vote for the Republican or the Democratic nominee for the House in 2018, but the NBC News/Wall Street Journal asks the generic ballot this way: “What is your preference for the outcome of next year’s congressional elections — (ROTATE:) a Congress controlled by Republicans or a Congress controlled by Democrats?”

I’ve always preferred the NBC News/Wall Street Journal wording, since it leaves individual candidates out of the mix completely, focusing only on the two parties.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot question hasn’t been a perfect indicator of things to come, but it has often signaled the kind of midterm election ahead.

The October survey of the midterm year correctly projected a small Democratic gain in 1998, a modest GOP gain in 2002 and a large Democratic wave in 2006. But in 2010, it appeared to suggest a small GOP gain, not the 63-seat turnover that actually occurred. And, the modest Democratic gain it promised in 2014 turned out to be a 13-seat GOP gain on Election Day. So caution is warranted.

Still, looking more deeply at the generic ballot during two strongly partisan midterm outcomes — the Democratic wave of the 2005-2006 cycle and the GOP wave of the 2009-2010 cycle — is bound to generate some useful questions, even if it doesn’t produce perfect answers.


In July 2005, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot stood at +5 for Democrats, but it grew to +9 in October (48%-39%) and +11 in November (48%-37%).

Over the next ten months, the Democratic generic ballot advantage remained in the high single digits to low double digits. In the final four NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls before the 2006 balloting, the Democratic advantage on the generic ballot ranged from 9 points in September (48%-39%) to 15 points (52%-37%), in October, the last pre-election survey.

That kind of advantage in the generic ballot is far from the norm, but starting about a year before the 2006 midterms, Democratic double-digit leads became the rule, not the exception.

On Election Day, the National House exit poll suggested that Democrats won by about 8 points — well below the final October poll’s generic ballot margin but still a considerable Democratic advantage that certainly explains the party’s 32-seat gain.


Four years later, the generic ballot behaved very differently.

Democrats started with a 9-point advantage in the April 2009 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (48%-39%) and held a 7-point advantage three months later in July (46%-39%).

President Obama still had solid job ratings well into 2009, and Democrats won two upstate New York special elections that year, which reflected the public’s mood. On March 31, Democrats held New York’s 20th C.D., and on September 21st they flipped an open GOP seat in New York’s 23rd C.D.

But while the October 2009 generic ballot suggested the public mood was stable (+8 Democrats), something clearly started to happen toward the end of 2009 and early in 2010.

The September 2009 generic was only +3 for Democrats (43%-40%), the December generic was +2 Democratic (43%-41%) and the late January generic remained at only +2 for Democrats (44%-42%).

Yes, Democrats continued to have an edge, but nothing like what they had earlier in the year. A significant change had occurred.

In late May 2010, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot flipped to Republicans +1 (44%-43%), followed by a June generic of +2 for the GOP (45%-43%). Both the late August and September 2010 polls found the generic tied (43%-43% and 44%-44%), while the final NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the cycle, conducted October 28-30, found the GOP with a small 2-point advantage in the generic ballot question (46%-44%).

The national House exit poll found Republicans winning that vote by 7 or 8 points, very close to the Democrats’ margin in 2006. The GOP gained 63 seats, comfortably within the range 55-65 seat range projected by the Rothenberg Political Report immediately before the election.

Responses to the generic ballot question showed a huge Democratic advantage in 2006 but only a narrow Republican one in 2010, yet both midterms saw partisan waves. Of course, it is noteworthy that both cycles saw large swings in partisan sentiment during the two-year cycles.

The Democrats’ initial advantage in the generic ballot during their wave cycle started at 7 points in May of 2005 and 5 points in July. It ended up at 15 points in the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the cycle, in October 2006.

The GOP’s generic swing was comparable in 2009-2010. That cycle started with a 9-point Democratic advantage in April 2005 and a 7-point advantage in July. It ended up at a 2-point Republican edge in the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the cycle, in October 2010.


The April 2017 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Democrats with a 4-point advantage in the generic ballot, 47% to 43%. That advantage doubled to 8 points (50%-42%) in the June 17-20, 2017 poll.

The size of the Democratic advantage certainly doesn’t now guarantee a partisan wave in 2018. But if the advantage grows, Republicans will get very nervous, even though the round of redistricting that took place after the last census generally strengthened Republicans’ holds on their districts.

Of course, Donald Trump still has an opportunity to improve his standing with the general public, which would make it more difficult for Democrats to win back the House.

Democrats almost certainly need a double-digit advantage in the generic ballot question (and a slew of retirements) to net at least the 24 seats they need to re-take the House next year. That is still a heavy lift for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But given the president’s low job approval ratings and his style and behavior, Democrats have plenty of cause for optimism that the House of Representatives will be in play in 2018.


Can GOP’s Mandel Ride Trump Wave in Ohio?

If you’re looking for a 2018 Republican Senate challenger who has embraced Donald Trump, you need look no further than Ohio’s Josh Mandel.

Trump’s surprising eight-point victory over Hillary Clinton in the Buckeye State would seem to augur well for a Trump-like messenger, but Mandel’s prospects against incumbent Sherrod Brown (D) look increasingly iffy given the emerging landscape of next year’s midterm elections.

Mandel, who was elected state treasurer in 2010 and reelected four years later, lost to Brown by six points, 51%-45%, in 2012. That was double Barack Obama’s three-point win (51%-48%) over Mitt Romney in Ohio. The GOP hopeful, who served in Iraq with the Marine Reserves, has oozed political ambition since he first ran for student government president at Ohio State University. After college, he was elected to the Lyndhurst city council and then won two elections for the Ohio House.

Mandel made it very clear early on that he wanted a re-match against Brown, and party leaders rallied around him. But while the state treasurer is a proven vote-getter and experienced candidate in a Trump state, he faces an uphill run. (Mandel also faces another pro-Trump GOP hopeful in the race for the Republican nomination, businessman Mike Gibbons.)

During the Obama years, the midterm election dynamic helped Republican candidates, who could run for change and against the Democratic president. But now, with the GOP firmly in charge and an unpopular Republican sitting in the Oval Office, Democratic incumbents, challengers and open-seat hopefuls will tap the electorate’s nervousness about and/or disappointment with Trump.

Brown, like Mandel, got into politics early. He served eight years in the Ohio House, got elected twice as Ohio secretary of state, and served seven terms in the U.S. House before winning election to the Senate in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose ethics issues and internationalist reputation cost her support among working-class voters, Brown, 64, has always been a populist Democrat. Trump over-performed in many working-class areas because of his populist rhetoric and “fair trade” message, but Brown has been a favorite of blue-collar voters for decades.

Although Mandel, who turns 40 later this month, has had electoral success, there are still lingering doubts about his appeal.

First, he won two statewide elections in very good Republican years, 2010 and 2014, when his party label helped catapult him to victory. But Mandel ran behind the rest of the statewide GOP ticket in 2014. He was reelected by a 13-point margin, but the state auditor was reelected by 19 points, the secretary of state by 25 points, the attorney general by 23 points and the governor by 31 points.

Second, while many Republicans elected statewide in Ohio have shown a moderate side — including Sen. Rob Portman, Gov. John Kasich, former senator George Voinovich and former senator (and now attorney general) Mike DeWine — Mandel has embraced the conservative agenda.

A look at Mandel’s twitter feed gives you a steady diet of his views, especially his efforts to end sanctuary cities, a favorite Trump agenda item. He also spends time echoing his support for Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, demonizing liberals and the media, and warning about the threat to Judeo-Christian values.

“While liberals hyperventilate & still don’t understand why Ohioans support @realDonaldTrump, families here appreciate him doing right by us,” Mandel tweeted on June 2nd, after Trump’s Paris accord decision.

On July 10, Mandel tweeted “Yes. This.” as he linked to a Brietbart piece entitled “Virgil — The Emerging Trump Doctrine: The Defense of the West and Judeo-Christian Civilization.”

A couple of months earlier, on May 2nd, he tweeted “We are living in a clash of civilizations. We must do everything we can to protect our Judeo-Christian way of life.”

Mandel’s initial tweet about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, posted August 12th at 9:30 pm, was surprisingly general.  “So sad what happened in VA today. No place for hate and violence in America.” Four days later, at 10:23 pm on Wednesday, August 16th, he put out a more specific tweet condemning “violence, bigotry and Naziism.”

While Mandel echoes Trump’s rhetoric (and recently had former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in for a fundraiser), he lacks other elements of Trump’s appeal. Trump ran as a successful businessman and political outsider who would disrupt the status-quo. He stressed his unique abilities.  

Mandel has been running for office since before his bar mitzvah (only a slight exaggeration), has little or no career outside of politics and, as a long-time elected official, can’t run effectively as an agent of change. But while there are question marks about Mandel, Democrats certainly can’t take this race for granted.

The biggest unknown is whether Ohio has moved from swing state to reliably Republican. Trump’s margin in the state was stunning, considering recent Buckeye State presidential outcomes.

Before 2016, the last time a presidential nominee carried the state by about eight points was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried Ohio by 7.8 points. Both conservative rural voters in Appalachia and working-class whites rallied behind Trump. Appalachia’s Monroe County, for example, gave Obama 44.8% of the vote in 2012, but Hillary Clinton won only 24.5%. Mahoning County (Youngstown) gave 63.5% of its vote to Obama but Clinton received only 49.9%.

The question for 2018 is whether Ohio has moved far enough into the Republican column to give Mandel a good chance of upsetting Brown. It’s a year until the post-Labor Day sprint begins, so things certainly can change. But right now, Brown’s proven campaign skills and his populist rhetoric and record, combined with Josh Mandel’s weaknesses and Trump’s falling job approval numbers, make Sherrod Brown the clear favorite in this race.