Republicans gained many high-level elected offices in Tuesday's midterm election, including the governorships in Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia. Nationally, GOP candidates -- including N.C. Sen.-elect Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. -- won enough Senate seats to shift the balance of power from Democrats to Republicans in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
In North Carolina, Democrats retained narrow control of the Senate but Republicans triumphed in many state elections, gaining a narrow 61-59 majority in the House as of Friday's unofficial results. Several candidates have requested vote recounts in counties with particularly close races.
The trend toward Republican representation in the South did not begin with last week's election, said Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life.
"The Republican Party made gains in stages since the end of World War II to the point that it is a clearly competitive region for the two parties," he said.
Guillory said the civil rights movement and religious evangelism contributed to many Southerners' decisions to support Republican candidates. "There was a switch of many Southern whites from the Democratic to Republican Party following the Democratic Party's advocacy of civil rights legislation. The second phase was a religious movement of evangelical Christians that found the Republican Party as a vehicle to express their views."
Guillory added that the migration of affluent, Republican-leaning whites from the Northeast and Midwest to the South has brought the party increased support.
Some experts attribute the Republican shift to the traditionally conservative ideologies held by many Southern voters.
"The South is basically conservative, fiscally and on social issues," said Bill Peaslee, political director of the N.C. Republican Party. "The Democratic Party has pulled away from that. By tradition, the South has been Democratic, and people are saying they no longer believe (what the Democratic Party believes)."
The increasingly liberal slant of many Democratic representatives also has caused some conservative members of the party to support Republican candidates, said UNC political science Professor Thad Beyle. "Conservative Democrats switched over because the Democratic platform was not conducive to what they wanted. In the past 40 years, the Republicans have gained strength as the Democratic Party moved away from segregation. A lot of Democrats switched over."