ELECTIONATE JANUARY 7, 2013
Charles Krauthammer is going a bit too far in describing an "internal civil war" among House Republicans, but as others noted last week, the vote on the Senate's "fiscal cliff" compromise revealed a deep divide between northern and southern Republican congressmen—a divide many attributed to non-competitive and deeply GOP districts. But a deeper analysis of the vote reveals that the partisanship of districts is only part of the story: The party's north-south split appears to be a matter of ideology, too. That bodes poorly for the GOP's ability to adjust after November's elections, and promises yet another messy, protracted primary in 2016.
Although a strikingly high proportion of GOP-held seats in red states are safely Republican, southern Republicans were still more likely to vote against the Senate compromise after adjusting for the partisanship of their district. Just two of the ten southern Republicans reelected in districts with a Cook PVI between R+3 or R+6 (roughly as Republican as Florida or Indiana, respectively) voted for the compromise, compared to 13 of the 16 Republicans from similarly partisan districts in the Northeast or Pacific coast. And while six of the ten northeastern and Pacific coast Republicans from districts with a Cook PVI between R+7 and R+12 (roughly as Republican as Montana or Kansas, respectively) supported the compromise, the Senate’s measure was only supported by 5 of the 32 Republicans from the South with similarly partisan districts. Are southern, red-state Republicans less likely to compromise because of the danger of a Tea Party challenge, or because of their own ideology? It's impossible to say from these data, but general-election vulnerability probably doesn't explain most of the gap between southern and northern Republicans.
One split along geographic lines isn’t enough to declare a civil war, especially since most GOP disagreements center on tactics, not policy. Nonetheless, disagreements over tactics have been enough to hint at real fractures within the House Republican caucus, with some Republicans, like Georgia Rep. Tom Price, going so far as to argue for “red-state leadership,” since Boehner and Cantor hail from states carried twice by the president. Indeed, 52 percent of House Republicans now hail from states carried by Romney, and just 34 percent of House Republicans come from the Pacific Coast or Northeast. While the red states have more clout in the next Republican caucus than the last, the blue states would hold even less sway within the House GOP without gerrymandering, which counter-intuitively is helping to moderate the House GOP caucus. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, for instance, Republican redistricting efforts yielded a larger number of Republicans from modestly safe districts in northern states, which tend to produce relatively moderate Republicans. The GOP delegation from Pennsylvania, perhaps the most GOP-gerrymandered blue state, unanimously voted for the compromise, and a majority of Republican representatives from Michigan and Illinois voted “yes,” too.
With potential caucus-splitting issues like gun control and immigration coming early in 2013, there's potential for the north-south divide to widen over the next few months. But even if Republicans survive 2013 without Krauthammer's civil war, it's easy to envision how it could come in 2016. Republicans do not yet agree on how to adjust to the demographic and generational changes that increasingly favor Democrats. Some Republicans prefer radical approaches like distancing the party from social conservatives or the wealthy, while others think the GOP can largely preserve its platform and reframe its message to appeal to a broader audience while cutting a few wedge issues, like immigration, marijuana, or gay marriage. It doesn't seem likely that the GOP could determine its approach without an intra-party fight; and such a battle over the future of the GOP seems likely to break along the same geographic lines evident in the fiscal cliff vote. As long as southerners keep supporting Tea Party candidates and northern Republicans keep supporting establishment-friendly candidates, neither side will prevail.
The Republicans could nominate a unifying candidate in the 2016 primaries—you never know—but a contested primary would probably break along geographic lines. In retrospect, the 2012 primary might have been a sneak preview. Even though Romney possessed vastly superior resources and acceded to every substantive demand of the right, the GOP primary electorate divided neatly between north and south. Southerners concerned with nominating an authentic conservative never embraced Romney: Despite the help of a divided field, Romney only broke 31 percent of the vote in one southern state, Florida. Geographic polarization ensured that the 2012 Republican presidential primary lasted until April. The fiscal cliff vote shows that such polarization is becoming the rule rather than the exception. If a blue-state Republican secures the GOP presidential nomination thanks to winner-take-all contests in blue states like New Jersey and California, Krauthammer might actually get his civil war.