26 October 2020

How the ‘Rising South’ could lock the Republicans out of the presidency

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The emergence of states like Texas, Georgia and Arizona as key battlegrounds in this year’s presidential election has surprised many outside observers. Some still reject it out of hand; surely gun-toting, bible-thumping, oil-drilling Texas that gave us George W Bush and J R Ewing could never leave the Republican fold?

A quick history recap may help here.

Most states have changed their political complexion at some point over the last century – due to migration and changes in national party ideology. From 1948 until 1992, California only voted Democratic once: it was the state’s Latino population rising from 12% in 1970 to 26% in 1990 and 39% today that fundamentally changed its politics. Likewise, ‘liberal’ Vermont voted Republican candidates in all but one election from the party’s foundation in 1854 to 1992. It was the movement of New Yorkers and Bostonians, seeking a greener life further north in the 1960s and 1970s that turned it Blue; its now favourite son, Bernie Sanders, moved from Brooklyn to Burlington in 1968. At the same time, a rightward shift in the Republican Party brand under Ronald Reagan left many moderate Republicans in New England and on the West Coast looking for an alternative.

Similarly, the realignment of the South over the same period is well-documented. In the century following the Civil War, the politics of  the Jim Crow ‘Solid South’ was dominated by racist segregationist Democrats, bitterly stubbornly opposed to the Republican ‘Party of Lincoln’. Only after Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Right Act and Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’, courting the votes of former segregationists, did the South embrace the GOP. In fact, in presidential elections from 1848 until Ronald Reagan’s win in 1980, Texas only voted Republican four times – and Georgia only twice.

Immigration also played a major role in this shift: as Southern cities like Dallas, Atlanta and Nashville modernised, they attracted white collar northerners into their growing suburbs. These newcomers skewed heavily Republican and rejuvenated the party in the South, helping to bring about the levels of GOP domination seen in recent decades.

Attracting businesses from Blue states has therefore been a well-trodden path for Republican leaders in the South ever since. The pitch was simple: states like California, New York and Illinois are high-tax, high-cost, high-regulation and heavily unionised – while the liberty-loving, union-busting, laissez-faire South was the opposite. For voters, the offer was equally clear: Republicans were bringing home the bacon and showing – in the most practical way possible – the superiority of the conservative economic model.

It has been far from subtle. If you turned on a radio in San Francisco or Los Angeles in early 2013, you might have come across an advert from Rick Perry, then Texas’ Republican Governor, declaring: “Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible… I have a message for California businesses. Come check out Texas.”

And so they did, in droves: from Toyota to Charles Schwab, tech startups to pharmaceutical distributors, hundreds of companies have arrived in Texas over the past decade. In Dallas alone, of 123 companies that moved their HQ to the city between 2010 and 2018, 43 came from California. Elon Musk now proudly sports a Texas driving licence, having decided to locate Tesla’s new factory in Austin. And the Lone Star State wasn’t alone: from Mercedes-Benz relocating their US HQ from New Jersey to Georgia to Boeing shifting Dreamliner production from Washington to South Carolina, these changes can be seen across the South.

Migration figures from the US Census Bureau speak for themselves. Between 2010 and 2018, the net influx (those arriving minus those leaving) of Californians to Texas was a staggering 257,806 and to Arizona – a Southwestern state where similar factors apply -, 185,519. On the east coast, North Carolina saw a net influx of 117,021 New Yorkers and Georgia 65,181.

Who are all these newcomers? Rugged entrepreneurs, supposedly fleeing liberal oppression, that Southern Republicans had in mind? Some perhaps, but most are simply looking to work for them. The fact is that the vast majority of businesses moving to the South are competing in the modern, knowledge-based economy – and, as such, looking to hire college-educated millennials, a group that are overwhelming and increasingly Democratic.

Many will have been helped in their decision to move by comparing the median house prices in Dallas ($225k), Atlanta ($225), Raleigh ($262k), Phoenix ($265k) and Austin ($299) with New York ($418k), Seattle ($460k), Los Angeles ($650k) or San Francisco ($875k). Indeed, CNN Money estimates that a $70,000 salary in Brooklyn will get you the equivalent of $136,000 in Raleigh. For a generation now looking to settle down, the financial decision isn’t rocket science.

These cities are warm throughout the year and have also become more livable through development; Atlanta, generally associated with endless traffic jams, now sports the “BeltLine”, an attractive trail built on a disused railway line, that makes the city far more walkable. The movement away from offices seen during the pandemic, where many footloose employees can live and work where they wish on around the same wage, is likely to make the South an even more appealing proposition.

The influence of growing millennial-friendly cities over Southern states is clear to see. From 2000 to 2019, the Atlanta metro area’s proportion of Georgia residents rose from 43% to 54%; Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin from 49% to 58% of Texas; and Charlotte and Raleigh from 25% to 34% of North Carolina. Urban development, such as the encroachment of Blue DC suburbs into Virginia, has long been the factor in changing the partisanship of a state.

In a US political map increasingly shaped by urban/rural divides, and with Republicans proving increasingly toxic in diversifying suburbs, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the increasing heft of Southern cities.

These seismic changes have catapulted these states to the top tier of political battlegrounds. The 2018 midterms saw the Democrats come within a hair’s breadth of winning both a Texas Senate seat and the Georgia governorship. This year, the playing field is even wider: on a presidential level, Joe Biden is looking to win Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and perhaps even Texas – as well as the perennial battleground of Florida.

In the Senate, Democrats are favoured in Arizona, neck-and-neck in North Carolina and have their eyes on Texas, South Carolina and two Georgia seats. Crucially, they have a shot at picking up state legislative chambers, which will shape next year’s congressional redistricting, in North Carolina, Arizona and Texas. In each case, their campaign is being powered by the growing power of metropolitan areas.

Migration and economic development are making this ‘Rising South’ more like the rest of America. Current Texas Governor Greg Abbott, when running for re-election in 2018, launched a petition imploring voters to not “California My Texas”. The irony is that it is Republicans who have brought about the changes that are slowly building conservative dominance out of the South. The transition will not be linear, but once these states move squarely into the Democratic column, as California has done, it will be very hard for a Republican to win the presidency.

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Mark Gettleson is a campaigns and election strategist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.