What Happened to Mountain Republicans in the South?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 3, 2017 · 1:11 PM EDT

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.