Every two years, when a new Congress is sworn in, political observers take note of changes in the composition of our national legislature: race, sex, age, religion, veteran status, and the like.
Following each decennial census and reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, however, we also take note of how relative population growth and decline in the fifty states correspond to changes in regional representation.
The South continues to gain clout in the House. But who (or what) drives Republicans’ continued dominance of the region today? Do the Democrats have any hope of competing for more seats in this growing region? How has the South’s demographic and economic expansion impacted national politics and policy? And how do the two major parties contend for power and control in the Old Confederacy and border states?
In 1950, the 11 former Confederate states plus Kentucky had 114 seats in the House of Representatives, barely a quarter of the chamber. Today, those 12 states are apportioned 148 seats, good for 34% of the House. This of course reflects net population growth in the South relative to the rest of the country.
Within the South, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi have two fewer House seats today than they did in 1950. A few states’ delegation sizes have remained relatively stable, inching up by a seat (South Carolina and Virginia) or two (North Carolina). Tennessee has 9 House seats, the same as in 1950. But stagnation and loss have been more than offset by significant growth in three other states. Georgia, which had 10 seats in 1950, has 14 today. The population explosions in Texas and Florida have largely propelled the region’s expansive power in Congress. The Lone Star State has 38 House seats, up from 22 in 1950. Florida’s representation has more than tripled, with the Sunshine State’s delegation increasing from 8 seats in 1950 to 28 today.
But if the South’s Representatives now account for more than a third of the House, we should also concede that Southern Senate wields less power than two generations ago. Each state has two Senators, regardless of population, thus the 24 Senators from the South represented 26% of the U.S. population in 1950. Those 24 represent more than a third of the population today.
Before conservative Southern whites realigned with the Republicans, Democrats from the South exercised outsized power in the Senate. Sometimes voting conservatively on civil rights and sometimes aligning with Northern liberals, Southern Democrats were vital to the party’s control of Congress and its fortunes in presidential elections. Long-serving Senators like Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, Georgia’s Richard Russell, and Arkansas’s William J. Fullbright were powerful forces in the midcentury Senate, with lengthy tenures as chairmen of powerful committees. More recent Southern Democrats, even when they managed to survive in the chamber and serve their states and the country admirably, have not had that level of institutional power. This is at least in part because Southern Democrats mattered less to the party as time went on.
For the cover of their 2003 book The Rise of Southern Republicans, political scientists Earl Black and Mearle Black chose a picture of Ronald Reagan. The implication is that Reagan — a divorced-and-remarried Californian, a nominal Presbyterian, and an adult convert to right-wing politics — principally brought Southern states into the Republican fold after the Democrats’ “solid South” coalition held Dixie for over a century after the Civil War.
Though it would be hard to imagine in contemporary politics, the Reagan-era South was sending more Democrats than Republicans to Congress even as Reagan won every Southern state except President Jimmy Carter’s native Georgia (and West Virginia, which remained a Democratic stronghold) in 1980 and swept the South in his landslide reelection in 1984.
In the 1954 election, former Democratic Vice President Alben Barkley defeated incumbent Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky. This meant that the 84th Congress (1955-1957) included 24 Democratic Senators from the South and zero Republicans, something completely unimaginable today. By 1963, the South had 4 Republican Senators, including Sherman, his fellow Kentuckian Thurston Ballard Morton, and Texas’s John Tower. It was then that South Carolina Sen. Storm Thurmond left the Democratic Party. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. of Virginia did likewise in 1970, becoming an Independent. Later, in 1994, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama defected to the Republicans after being elected in 1986 (and reelected in 1992) as a Democrat. By 1973, 8 out of the region’s 24 Senators were Republicans. In 1983, the number of Republicans grew to 11. In 1993, following the election of President Bill Clinton, the South was split with 12 Senators from each party. In 2003, 15 of the 24 were Republicans. In 2013, there were 18 Southern Republicans and only 6 Democrats. That number declined to two by 2020: Virginians Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But with the election of Georgians (John Ossoff in 2020 and Raphael Warnock in 2021), the Southern states have 4 Democratic Senators. If we include West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin III brings the number to 5 (out of 26).
Expanding in the analysis to include West Virginia and Missouri, there are 23 Republican Senators from the South, meaning that Republicans control 82% of Southern U.S. Senate seats. By comparison, Republicans hold 70% of Southern U.S. House seats.
With 49 Republicans in the Senate in the 118th Congress, this means that 47% of GOP Senators hail from the Old Confederacy, Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia. That proportion is even more significant in the House. Exactly half (111 of 222) of the House Republican Conference is from the South.
By contrast, the House Democratic Caucus has 213 Members, of which 47 are Democrats. This means that only 22% of House Democrats are from 14 Southern states. In the Senate, less than 10% of the Democratic Caucus is from the South.
These differences speak to the region’s disparate influence on the two parties. The Republican Party is, at least in Congress but perhaps also at the presidential level, a largely Southern party.
This at least partially explains the growing influence of various aspects of Southern culture on the Republican Party nationally: greater distance from elite institutions, closer identification with rural and suburban areas, and a higher propensity for religious (and especially evangelical Protestant) expression and identity.
That said, all six of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s colleagues in Senate GOP leadership are from outside the South. Speaker Kevin McCarthy has Southerners in half (3 of 6) of House GOP leadership positions: Majority Leader Steve Scalise or Louisiana, Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson, also of Louisiana, and National Republican Campaign Committee Chair Richard Hudson of North Carolina.
Twelve of 20 House committee chairs are Southerners. In the Senate minority, 8 of the Republicans’ 16 ranking members (senior-most minority party members) are from the South. The Republican Party clearly recognizes, elevates, and prioritizes its Southern contingent.
On the other side, the South continues to trend away from the Democrats. Perhaps Republicanization has reached its limit, and Southern Democrats have nowhere to go but up. It seems hard to imagine things getting worse for them.
But for now, Democratic strength runs through the Northeast and the West Coast, with a growing hold on the Southwest and a loosening grip on the Upper Midwest.
Southern culture and identity have less impact on the Democratic Party, and this is reflected in the party’s Congressional membership and leadership, as well as the operational, rhetorical, and strategic tendencies of party actors.
Democrats have somewhat larger leadership structures in each chamber. But of the 16 Democrats who currently hold party leadership positions in the Senate, only one is arguably from the South: Sen. Joe Manchin is Co-Vice-Chair of the Democratic Policy & Communication Committee.
In the House, Southerners hold 3 of 9 leadership positions, the most minor and least important ones. Only 3 of 20 Democratic ranking members are Southerners.
In the Senate, Southerners chair only one of 16 standing committees. Democrats have fought hard for and desperately clung to the two Georgia Senate seats, which provide the margin for their startlingly narrow majority. But they are doing little to bring more Southern Democrats into the Senate.
With better-than-expected performance in the 2022 Midterm Elections, attention has focused on difficult Democratic losses in New York State and California which, in effect, handed the Republicans their razor-thin majority. But if Democrats controlled 33% of Southern U.S. House seats in the 118th Congress rather than their current share of 30% — a difference of only 5 seats across 14 states — they would be the majority party and control both chambers of Congress.
Republicans may err if they depend too heavily on the South for votes and power. A party that is too evangelical, too racially conservative, too blood-and-soil nativist, and too morally traditional likely cannot win and hold national majorities. But Democrats could significantly shore up their standing in Congress with just a little more electoral success in the South. The trouble is, a party too dominated by social and cultural forces of Northeastern and West Coast progressives may make it difficult for Democrats to do anything more than hold onto the relatively few seats Republican gerrymandering has left them with.
The 118th Congress is more Southern than ever, and the South dominates the Republican Party. Likewise, the GOP increasingly dominates Southern politics. The number of House seats across the South will not change until after the 2030 census. But in the intervening years, we will see how the parties act strategically to contend for influence within and beyond the South.
Jacob Lupfer is a writer, editor, and political analyst in Jacksonville, Florida.