Thursday, April 9, 2009

21st Century Carpetbagger

After the Civil War, many northern Republicans opportunistically went south to fill the power vacuum that was left after the collapse of the old Democratic pro-slavery power structure. From their supposed tendency to carry makeshift suitcases made from folded-up rugs, those northerners gained the label of "carpetbaggers".

During the heady days of Reconstruction, some African Americans were elected to Congress on the Republican ticket. But, when the occupation of the south by federal troops ended during the Hayes Administration, white Democrats regained control. Black candidates were not elected to public office in the south again until the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. In modern times, almost all of the African American officials are Democrats.

Now, another northern Republican has followed in the footsteps of the carpetbaggers. Former New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith moved to Sarasota, Florida, after losing the Republican primary for reelection in New Hampshire in 2002. Politico reports that Smith plans to seek the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Florida Senator Mel Martinez, in 2010.

Members of the British House of Commons frequently represent constituencies with which they have no long-term ties. One implication of that is that no one cares if, after they've represented one part of the country for a while, they instead represent an entirely different constituency. For example, Winston Churchill represented four different constituencies during more than six decades in the Commons. He was defeated for reelection from Dundee, in Scotland, in 1922. Undeterred, he went on to win the English seat of Epping, two years later. But such switches are extremely rare in American politics.

For some reason, the one U.S. Senate seat that has been most welcoming to carpetbaggers has been New York's Class I seat. In 1964, Robert Kennedy moved his official residence from Massachusetts to New York, and defeated incumbent Republican Senator Kenneth Keating in that year's general election. Six terms later, in 2000, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who had previously lived in Illinois and Arkansas, had also moved to New York, in her case to attempt (successfully) to succeed Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Actually, Clinton was more of a carpetbagger than Kennedy. He had lived, as a child with his family, in Bronxville, New York, from his pre-school days to the point when his father became Ambassador to the Court of St. James's (i.e., ambassador to London), in 1938.

As a northern Republican who has headed south, Smith's candidacy more closely parallels the experience of the 19th-century carpetbaggers. But he would be replacing a fellow Republican, which was generally not the case in the wake of the Civil War.

More to the point, it strikes me that Smith's personal odyssey parallels that of his party. I wrote here about the decrease of Republican power in New England, and here about that party's gains in the south. Smith symbolizes that geographical shift in his party's center of gravity.

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