WASHINGTON — The budget battles rocking the capital have exposed a deepening fault line within an already fractured Republican Party: the divide between the GOP's solid Southern base and the rest of the country.
That regional split became evident when members of the House of Representatives cast votes last week on a budget deal designed to avoid massive tax hikes and spending cuts: Almost 90% of Southern Republicans voted against the "fiscal-cliff" compromise. At the same time, a majority of Republican representatives from outside the South supported the deal, which was approved in large part because of overwhelming Democratic support.
Rep. Peter T. King (R- N.Y.) accused his party of "cavalier disregard" toward New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender, lashed out at what he called the "toxic internal politics" of his party's House majority, noting that Republicans had speedily approved support for storm relief in "Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama …"
Boehner moved quickly to smooth things over, but the upheaval was a reminder that divisions within the party could play an influential role as the new Congress begins to tackle Washington's top agenda items, including an attempt in coming weeks to avoid a national debt default and President Obama's promised effort to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
The image projected by the battles in the House — the only part of the federal government controlled by Republicans — could influence public attitudes toward the GOP and its candidates heading into the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest.
In particular, the South's preeminence could pose challenges to national GOP efforts to broaden the party's appeal on social and cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
"An increasing challenge for Northeastern Republicans, and West Coast Republicans, for that matter, is the growing perception among their constituents that the Republican Party is predominantly a Southern and rural party," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP campaign strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "There's always been a political and cultural disconnect between the South and the rest of the country. But as the parties have sorted themselves out geographically over the last few decades, the size of that gap has increased."
To an unprecedented degree, today's Republican majority in the House is centered in the states of the old Confederacy. The GOP enjoys a 57-seat advantage across the 11-state region that stretches from Texas to Virginia.
Outside the South, however, it's a different story.
As a result of reapportionment and the 2012 election, the GOP no longer controls a majority of non-Southern congressional districts. In the last Congress, Republicans held a slim, two-district majority in non-Southern states; now Democrats have a 24-seat edge. Still, the Republicans have a comfortable 33-seat overall majority in the House — two seats are vacant — and only the most optimistic Democrats believe that Republicans will lose control of the chamber in 2014.
Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor who is an authority on the rise of the Republican Party in the South, said opposition to the fiscal cliff compromise appeared to be concentrated in congressional districts with the highest percentages of conservative voters.
"The Deep South is the most conservative area of the nation," Black noted.
Few would dispute that the battle over the fiscal cliff and internecine sniping over Superstorm Sandy aid left Republicans in Washington deeply divided at a time when the party is still trying to recover from a presidential election defeat that many did not see coming.
"Any time a party loses an election, it goes through a process of internal debate. What the fiscal cliff did was to force that into becoming a little more public than usually happens," said Republican strategist Ed Brookover.
Not everyone in the party agrees that its increasing concentration in the South poses a threat at the ballot box.
"No one in New Hampshire isn't going to vote Republican because our base is in the South," said Dave Carney, a campaign consultant based in New Hampshire whose clients have included Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "I don't think there's a disqualification because a majority of the party members come from below the Mason-Dixon line. What would be an issue is who the candidates will be at the national level and what their message will be."
Yet the South's dominance and internal politics have reinforced the tilt toward sharply conservative views.
In the House, most members of both parties represent districts that have lopsided partisan majorities. The threat of a primary challenge, often from a more extreme member of their own party, is a greater threat to many incumbents than opposition in the general election from the other party's candidate.
That tends to foster attitudes that can run counter to a party's national goals. The recent presidential campaign, in which Republican Mitt Romney was targeted by Democrats for adopting more conservative positions as he sought the nomination, demonstrated the limits of hewing to the Southern approach. The positions Romney and others have taken secured the support of white voters, but that is a declining share of a national electorate that is becoming increasingly diverse, with the emergence of a fast-growing Latino vote that has strongly favored Democratic candidates.
"Republicans across the country need to take a long, hard look at where this party is headed. Demographically, it cannot survive on the trajectory it's taken," said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. "The question for House Republicans is whether they are going to be an aid or an obstacle. I am hopeful the longer view is taken and that Republicans will understand the political predicament we would be in if responsible, substantive changes aren't made in the tone and substance of the party's relationship to Hispanics."
Brookover, a former political director of the House Republican campaign committee, contrasted opposition to the fiscal cliff compromise in the House with the high level of GOP support in the Senate, where officeholders often have to build a broader base of support to win statewide. Only five Republican senators voted no.
Most of the dissenters were first-termers who came into office with the support of the tea party in 2010, including potential combatants in the next round of Republican presidential primaries: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.