GOP Civil War Returns To Its Alabama Roots

11/19/2017 12:10 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2017

It is appropriate that what may be a defining moment in the Republican Party civil war revolves around a senate race in Alabama. Alabama is where it all began. It is where, 50 years ago, the GOP embarked on a path that transformed the political landscape of the country and brought the party to its current straits. To a person, the leadership of the GOP in Congress find GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore to be deplorable, but it remains to be seen if the party base in Alabama ― once devoted Democrats, now bound heart and soul to the GOP ― share their view.

Fifty years ago this coming February, Alabama Governor George Wallace broke from the Democratic Party and launched his independent bid for the Presidency. The tension between southern Democrats and the national Democratic Party had been building for decades. The Democratic Party had been the party of the agrarian south dating back to its founding by Thomas Jefferson. It was the party of southern slaveholders leading up the Civil War, of the Jim Crow south after Reconstruction, and it continued to dominate southern politics through the New Deal. By the middle of the 20th century, things began to change, however, as growing Democrat support for civil rights increased disaffection with the national Democratic Party among southern Democrats.

Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, with 43 percent of the vote ― edging out Democrat Hubert Humphrey by 500,000 votes, or 1/2 of 1 percent―while George Wallace won 9.9 million votes, representing 14 percent of the vote. In the wake of a second close presidential contest, Nixon ― who had lost the 1960 presidential race by 110,000 votes to John F. Kennedy ― was determined not to face a third close election in 1972, and seized on the disaffection of the Wallace voters.

As documented by Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, Nixon’s ensuing Southern Strategy was implemented with the intention of “trading” the traditional GOP support among black voters and New England and Midwestern liberal Republicans for the traditionally Democrat southern and working class white voters who had supported the Wallace candidacy. Despite the tendency to view the Southern Strategy in starkly racial terms, Phillips observed that Nixon did not need to make major shifts in traditional GOP rhetoric to win a larger share of southern and rural voters, as the turmoil of the 1960s and the Democratic Party shift to the left on cultural issues provided the GOP with a natural opening. Nixon ran on a law and order platform, and he and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, shared a natural affinity with Wallace voters in their disdain for the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, and the role and power of the national media.

The strategy worked. In the 1960 presidential race, Nixon won 50 percent of the popular vote, including 51 percent of the white vote and 32 percent of the black vote. Twelve years later, in the 1972 contest, Nixon and the GOP took 68 percent of the white vote and 13 percent of the black vote. Eight years later, in the 1980 Presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan sharpened the GOP racial appeal with his embrace of states’ rights on the eve of his nomination, and his embrace of what his campaign strategist Lee Atwater would later describe as barely disguised racial code.

A half a century later, the political landscape has been transformed. Historically part of the “solid south” of the Democratic Party, Alabama is now seen as forbidding territory for Democrats. Once the most powerful force in the Democratic Caucus, the last white Democrat in Congress from the old south finally succumbed in 2014. On the other side of the aisle, Susan Collins of Maine is the last remaining Republican Senator from the Northeast, which was once a stronghold of the national Republican Party,

Alabama’s long history in the Democrat camp is barely remembered by Alabama voters today, as they grapple with the Roy Moore controversy. Voters there who suggest that voting for a Democrat is unimaginable seem unaware that when Jeff Sessions was elected to replace Democrat Howell Heflin twenty-one years ago, he was only the second Republican elected to the Senate from Alabama since Reconstruction; or that current Republican Senator Richard Shelby was originally elected as a Democrat, but switched parties in the mid-1990s.

Against that history and backdrop of strident partisanship, Roy Moore is loath to step aside. Faced with charges of sexual misconduct, he is largely ignoring his Democrat challenger. Instead, he has chosen to strike a stance of defiance against the national media and political elites that resonates deeply with Alabama’s history. By choosing to define his political opponent in the race as the Washington Post and Mitch McConnell ― while framing himself as standing up for Christian and traditional southern values ― he is appealing to Alabama’s history of resentment toward federal dictates, and to animosities between the agrarian south and northern power that dates back to the formation of the republic.

Those in the GOP who are looking to Donald Trump to bail the party out and demand that Roy Moore step aside seem to miss the fact that Donald Trump is Roy Moore. Not, as many have suggested, with respect to his sexual deeds or misdeeds, but as a politician who stood against the Republican Party and triumphed by channeling the resentments of voters against the powers that be. Trump put his credibility on the line against Roy Moore once before ― against his own instincts ― when he deferred to Mitch McConnell and endorsed current Senator Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the primary. One has to imagine he will be loath to make that mistake again.

The chasm between the Alabama Republican Party and national Republicans is only growing wider. As Roy Moore has stood his ground, GOP leaders in Congress ― who thought they had taken an ethical stance in choosing to believe Moore’s accusers and demanding that Moore step aside ― have found themselves being excoriated by Moore and his allies as political elites allied with the national media. Like déjà vu all over again, we are watching Roy Moore channel George Wallace, and Moore’s allies rally Alabamans to his cause.

A half-century after Wallace left the Democratic Party, it is like nothing has changed. Except this time, Roy Moore’s man is sitting in the White House. Meanwhile, those in the GOP who thought they were taking the high road are left to wonder: Did the Republican Party absorb the southern Democratic Party, or was it the other way around all along?

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”

Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

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