Republican roots grow in South. Party makes strides in gubernatorial races

The spreading Republicanism in the South is sinking some new roots. A historic number of strong GOP challenges for Southern governorships in November threatens to crack into the Democrats' century-long strongholds, the statehouses.

Voting for Ronald Reagan is one thing: Southerners began favoring presidential Republicans in the 1960s. But the White House is a long way from the county courthouses of Dixie, where the region's politics are rooted and traditionally only Democrats find jobs.

With each election year, the GOP is fielding stronger candidates and putting more resources behind them at the state and local levels.

``Here in Alabama particularly they seem to be putting together better races from the lowest levels all the way to the governor's race,'' says Wayne Greenhaw, a journalist and author of ``Elephants in the Cottonfields,'' a book on the rise of Southern Republicanism.

In Alabama and South Carolina, Republicans are running close for governorships held by the Democrats since Reconstruction in the 1870s. In Florida, a Republican dubbed the front-runner by some analysts would be the state's first GOP governor in a century, but for one colorful character elected in 1966 generally seen as a fluke.

In Texas, Republican William Clements is running ahead of Democratic incumbent Mark White in his bid to regain the governorship. Tennessee has a Republican governor now, and the race to succeed him is too close to call.

If all these Republicans tip the scales, they would actually run a majority of the states of the old confederacy.

Louisianians, meanwhile, the most Democratic voters in the country, may elect their first GOP senator since Reconstruction.

The Republican Party is still in its formative stages in much of the South, but it is encroaching steadily at all levels.

In sheer numbers, voters in the South who call themselves Republicans are still a distinct minority. Republicans now outnumber Democrats among Southern whites, however. In the same group, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 as recently as 1982.

Of the South's senators, 45 percent are Republican, up from zero 25 years ago. If freshman Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina can hold on to their seats -- and all but Florida's Paula Hawkins hold some advantage in the polls -- and if Rep. Henson Moore can hold his lead in the Louisiana Senate race, then fully half the South's Senate delegation will belong to the party of Lincoln.

Southern Republicans have made steady gains in the US House as well and should pick up more in November.

At present, 37 percent of the Southern seats in the House are Republican, a percentage not far from that of other regions of the country.

``So the South has pretty much moved back into the mainstream,'' says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, for the first time since the breakup of the Whig Party in the 1850s.

Statehouses have been harder for the GOP to crack. But they are also key to the party's ambitions, because state legislatures draw up district boundaries for state legislators and US senators and congressmen. The national GOP has been working to control, or at least have veto power over, the next district-drawing process in 1991.

Overall, in state legislatures, 22 percent of representatives and 16 percent of senators are Republican. But Republican growth has varied from state to state.

Tennessee, a rim state with a Republicanism dating to the Civil War in its eastern mountains, has a popular Republican governor and a legislature about one-third Republican.

Alabama, on the other hand, has only three Republicans among 35 senators and nine out of 105 representatives.

In the Atlanta area, notes Dr. Bullock, who is president of the Southern Political Science Association, Republicans are even beginning to take over county governments, which could develop new generations of congressmen and statewide office-seekers.

Guy Hunt has a shot at becoming Alabama's first Republican governor largely by default, because a bitter feud arising from the Democratic runoff has angered voters. Yet the new sense of possibility has mobilized the state party.

A respected young politico, Marty Connors, has become the state party director, for example. ``It's the first time the Republicans have had anybody who's a professional politician running the show,'' notes Mr. Greenhaw. ``The Democrats have always had somebody like that.''

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