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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Future of Southern Democrats

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a special interest in Southern Democrats, and believe they must remain somewhat competitive if the national party is to have any serious chance of controlling Congress, and of entering presidential contests on an even plane with the GOP. And unlike some Democrats in and out of the region, I also think that a competitive southern party is not at all a lost cause.
Part of that conviction is historical. There have been three big waves of Republican gains in the South since the Civil Right era. The first began in 1964, with the defection of southern segregationists to the Barry Goldwater campaign, and subsided in 1970, when a host of “New South” Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Dale Bumpers, and Reuben Askew swept key gubernatorial races across the region. The second began in 1980, when Republicans swept Senate races in the South; it was reversed in 1986; and after rebuilding and peaking in 1994, subsided in 1996 and 1998, when Democrats made a modest but unmistakable comeback in both presidential and non-presidential contests. We are now in the midst of the third big Republican wave, and you will forgive me for being persistently skeptical that this one is any more “permanent” than the other two.
The Democratic response to the first two waves of the GOP tide was very simple: Democrats began building biracial coalitions that offset defections among conservative white voters. In the Wave I response, Democrats combined strong and hard-earned African-Americans votes with a partial revival of support among rural white voters, often exploiting Republican extremism and incompetence in governance. The apotheosis of the Wave I Democratic comeback was Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign of 1976, which drew strong support not only from black voters but from Wallace voters, and–a small detail often forgotten–from self-conscious evangelical Christians attracted by Carter’s outspoken “born-again” identity.
Once both rural conservatives and, most conspicuously, “born-agains,” drifted into the Republican coalition between 1980 and 1994, Southern Democrats created a new bipartisan coalition by continuing to earn 90 percent support from African-Americans, while attracting suburban voters and southern “moderates” generally with a message focused on education and other attractive public-sector agenda items. while insulating themselves from the less attractive aspects of the national party, such as “big government” and cultural liberalism. This new biracial coalition helped Bill Clinton carry four southern states in 1996, and lifted Roy Barnes of GA, Don Siegelman of AL, and Jim Hodges of SC, to upset wins in gubernatorial contests in 1998.
The Democratic response to Wave III of GOP success is uncertain, in no small part because Republicans at both the presidential level and down-ballot have re-established their dominance of the suburban vote, while gradually but steadily increasing their hold on rural white voters.
But the obvious models to look at for a Wave III Democratic comeback are three southern governors: Mark Warner of Virginia ( elected in 2001), and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee (elected in 2002), and Mike Easley of North Carolina (elected in 2000 and re-elected easily in 2004).
Bredesen is profiled by Clay Risen in the latest edition of The New Republic (not up now, but soon to appear on www.tnr.com). Everything Risen says about Bredesen could also be said about Warner (indeed, the Tennessean clearly based his campaign on the Virginian’s electoral strategy). Both men are non-southerners and successful high-tech entrepreneurs who (a) exploited divisions in the dominant Republican Party in their states; (b) found ways to neutralize cultural issues without abandoning progressive principles; (c) used their business experience to establish a reputation of competence and to attract other business people to Democratic policy priorities like education; and most important, (d) convinced conservative rural voters that public sector activism and new technologies could create economic opportunity in regions left for dead by conventional Republican economic development strategies.
Easley’s political appeal has followed many of the same patterns, but the Warner/Bredesen model is especially worth pondering because it has succeeded in states where Republicans appeared to be in a permanent ascendency.
Warner and Bredesen created a whole new biracial coalition, on the fly, based on the political opportunities available to them. Warner, for example, won southwest Virginia, a heavily-white, economically strugging region where our last two presidential candidates just got killed. And he did well in central and southside Virginia, areas where many Democratic elected officials had retired or become Republicans, and where the Democratic Party as an institution had become all but invisible.
The $64,000 question, which Risen implicitly raises in discussing Bredesen’s success, is whether such Wave III Democratic candidates are an aberration; a vestige of the fading past; or perhaps a portent for the future.
Risen cites a compelling analysis of southern voting trends by Ron Brownstein that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Aside from documenting the steady erosion of geographical support for Democrats in post-1996 presidential elections, Brownstein notes the formidable rise in the percentage of southern voters self-identifying as “conservative.”
But a comparison of Bill Clinton’s 1996 performance in the South to John Kerry’s in 2004, makes it pretty clear that the rise–or more accurately, the resurgance–of southern conservatism is not necessarily the only cause of the current Republican ascendency, and is not inevitably an immovable object in the way of a Wave III Democratic revival.
In 1996, the ideological profile of southern voters was: 44% moderate, 39% conservative, 17% liberal. In 2004, it was 43% moderate, 40% conservative, 17% liberal. Not a big difference at all.
Clinton lost southern conservatives in 1996 by 55 points, while Kerry lost them by 73. And Clinton won the plurality group of southern moderates by 20 points, while Kerry won them by 4.
Cutting marginally into the Republican dominance of conservatives, and winning a stronger majority of moderates, is the key to Democratic victories in the South. And that’s not at all a different challenge from the one Democrats face nationally.
To the extent that Warner and Bredesen–and in many respects, Mike Easley as well–represent candidacies that have met that challenge in the toughest possible terrain, and because they have done so without repuduating progressive policies important to Democrats in other regions, I would offer these southern governers not only as examples of how Democrats can remain competitive in the South–but of how Democrats nationally can build a new majority.
In the longer run, I personally believe African-American centrist Democratic candidates–like Mike Thurmond and Thurbert Baker of Georgia, and Ron Kirk of Texas, or for that matter, North Carolina’s Harvey Gantt, who was ahead of his time–offer the best avenue for re-establishing a strong biracial coalition in the South, and as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois illustrates, a great opportunity nationally as well. Wherever they live, African-American candidates tend to understand and share the cultural values that white Democrats so often have trouble addressing, and also embody the opportunity message that is ultimately the key to Democratic success everywhere. And down south, as I have written about before, a two-way biracial coalition, in which white voters support black candidates, is the right way, and the only way, to keep that coalition alive.

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