December 16, 2012

Commentary: Republicans have a Yankee problem

By embracing Southern-style conservatism, the party is all but extinct in the region of its birth.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Since the national Republican defeat last month, political pundits, analysts and operatives have been discussing the party's manifold electoral shortcomings.

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Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher

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SOURCE: Colin Woodard, "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America"

The election results starkly revealed its weakness with the fast-growing Hispanic vote (Mitt Romney lost it 71 percent to 27 percent), with African-Americans (93 percent to 7 percent) and Asian-Americans (73 percent to 27 percent), young people (60 percent to 40 percent) and even women (55 percent to 45 percent). The party, it is said, must find a way to extend its base beyond the white and the wealthy if it is to survive in a country becoming more diverse and unequal by the day. Texas will soon have a non-white majority, after all, and if it turns reliably blue, the Democrats will have a mathematical lock on the Electoral College and a devastating advantage on the congressional map. an enormous advantage in their effort to control Congress.

While this is all most certainly true, Republicans confront yet another problem on the electoral map: their virtual extinction in the region of the party's birth.

I'm taking about Yankeedom, a great swath of the country from Maine to Minnesota that was first effectively colonized by New England Puritans and their descendants. This cultural region -- one of 11 in North America I've described in my recent book, "American Nations" -- includes New England and the regions New Englanders colonized in the 18th and early 19th centuries: upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, the Upper Great Lakes states, the northern tier of Illinois, and part of Iowa. The birthplace of the GOP and the center of its support for the first century of its existence, today it is home to 54 million people, few of whom are genetically related to the early settlers of the Bay Colony, but all of whom are profoundly affected by the cultural DNA they left behind.

This election cycle, Yankeedom's Republicans, long in retreat, faced their Waterloo.

We saw it here in Maine, of course. Although we're a rural, white, and not particularly affluent state -- just the sort of place national pundits would expect to embrace today's GOP -- Democrats had their day. Barack Obama won 15 of 16 counties. Democratic incumbents trounced their opponents in the U.S. House races. Olympia Snowe was replaced by Angus King, who will caucus with the Democrats. Republicans lost control of both houses of the state Legislature, putting the brakes on Gov. Paul LePage's Dixie-compatible agenda.

We were by no means an anomaly. In New England, Mitt Romney didn't capture a single Electoral College vote and Republicans lost every major federal and statewide contest. Scott Brown lost his U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. In "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire, Republicans lost the governor's race, both U.S. House seats and -- in a massive turnaround -- the lower chamber of the State House. Romney won only five of 63 New England counties, and not a single one in Vermont, Rhode Island or Massachusetts, all states with large white majorities. In the wake of the election New England doesn't have a single GOP congressperson. Only two of its 12 U.S. senators are Republicans. LePage is its last remaining Republican governor.

And the carnage is by no means limited to the New England core. Romney lost every state dominated by Yankeedom -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota -- and all those with significant Yankee sections, including New York and Ohio. Republican U.S. Senate candidates lost in every Yankee-dominated state as well, while Democrat Sherrod Brown owed his Senate victory in Ohio to overwhelming support in the Yankee-founded Western Reserve. Republicans lost 10 of 12 Yankee-controlled House seats in Illinois, 5 of 8 in Minnesota, 4 of 9 in upstate New York, and both in eastern Iowa. They clearly lost the Western Reserve as well, though that Democratic bastion has been so intensively gerrymandered it's impossible to make a firm count of its congressional districts.

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