WASHINGTON — When President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said to an aide, ``We just gave the South to the Republicans.''
Indeed, Democrats lost their hold on the old Confederacy over the next decade, turning it into a bastion of Republican strength, first in presidential elections and later in congressional elections.
Now, another Texas president might well ask whether his Republican Party just gave away another section of the country, the Southwest and Mountain West.
President Bush had a way with Hispanic voters, steadily increasing his party's share of the once-solid Democratic bloc from a dismal 21 percent in 1996 to 35 percent in 2000, 37 percent in 2002 and 40 to 44 percent in 2004.
His comprehensive immigration proposal might have helped build on those gains, with its path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
But his proposal outraged his party's conservative base. That base opposed the proposal for the last two years — contributing to a drop-off in Hispanic support for Republican congressional candidates last year — and finally killed the plan in the Senate last week.
With it went Bush's hopes of a growing Republican share of the nation's fastest- growing demographic group.
Short term, the immigration plan's defeat could help Republicans on one side of the ledger, by shoring up the conservative base.
That's particularly true going into 2008 if the party nominates any of the many presidential candidates who oppose any form of leniency for illegal immigrants. Of the Republican field, only Arizona Sen. John McCain supported a path to citizenship, and he's paying a price as his support in the party is dropping fast.
But on the other side of the balance sheet, watch for the Hispanic vote to return to its lopsided support of Democrats. And with continuing growth in the Hispanic vote, that's the side that could dominate.
That could push Florida away from Republicans, and remember how important it was to the party in 2000. That's partly why Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, pushed for the Bush immigration plan in the Senate.
More importantly, it also could push away the Southwest — and help Democrats build a new base in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where a jump in Hispanic population is turning the region into the fastest growing in the country. The region has 29 Electoral College votes for president — sure to grow again after the 2010 census — and dozens of seats in the Senate and House of Representatives.
In Arizona, Republicans still hold both Senate seats, but Democrats gained two House seats there in 2006 and popular Democrat Janet Napolitano holds the governor's office.
In Colorado, Democrat Ken Salazar won one of the two Senate seats in 2004, and Democrats took the governor's office and a U.S. House seat last year. They'll fight fiercely next year for the Senate seat that's being vacated by retiring Republican Wayne Allard.
The Democrats will hold their national convention in Denver next year.
In New Mexico, Democrat Bill Richardson was just re-elected governor, and the party holds one of two Senate seats. Republican Sen. Pete Domenici is up for re-election next year.
In Nevada, home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats gave the state a coveted spot on the presidential nominating calendar — second, after Iowa — to allow the state's Hispanic voters a bigger say in the nomination.
Democrats have been predicting a takeover of the Southwest for a decade. And they've made some gains. Now, with the Republican-led defeat of the comprehensive immigration plan, they might get what they've long wanted.