This is getting to be really interesting. Armando of DailyKos has done a second post responding to my latest optimistic epistle on the future of Southern Democrats, and poses a few more questions and challenges that I’m happy to try to answer. Maybe I should apply for a Sympathy for the Devil diary on the Kos site, as a combined party unity/missionary effort.The main question Armando poses is why, exactly, Dems cratered between ’96 and ’04 among Southern self-identified moderates. He answers his own question by suggesting that 9/11 made all the difference, elevating the national security issue.Certainly that answer has something to do with it. Maybe it’s all those military bases; maybe it’s the disproportionate number of black, white and brown southerners who sign up to fight for their country; maybe it’s even that fightin’ frontier Jacksonian Scotch-Irish heritage that Walter Russell Mead writes about–but there’s no question national security matters more in the South than in, say, Iowa.But the problem with attributing the Dem decline between ’96 and ’04 to national security is the intervening election: ’00, when the Democratic presidential vote among white southerners collapsed, even though the candidate was, technically, a Southern White Guy (and, technically, a Baptist to boot) named Al Gore.In another section of his post, Armando suggests that Clinton’s personal qualities as a candidate, not his message or his positioning on issues, explains his relative success in the South. As I have argued at some length elsewhere, I don’t think you can separate the message and the messenger so cleanly, especially in the South, where Clinton’s communications gifts were considered natural, not supernatural.Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton ’96 and Gore ’00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government–both big “trust” issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who “worked hard and played by the rules” should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a “hand up, not a handout.” Everyone in Washington laughed at Clinton’s “micro-initiatives” on supporting the family–V-chips, school uniforms, youth curfews, etc,–but they sent big messages in the culturally-sensitive South. And in general, Clinton’s whole ’96 message was that he was willing to reign in government’s excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials–the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).Compare that message to Gore’s, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton’s southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for “mending, not ending” affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government “smarter, not bigger.” Gore never mentioned his own role in the “reinventing government” initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.Moving forward four years, Kerry tried to avoid Gore’s mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics–distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda–that made him seem alien to southern voters. And without any question, the polarization of the entire election pushed southern moderates, like moderates elsewhere, to pick sides instinctively rather than think it all through.(At the risk of gnawing this question to death, I might add that Clinton in ’96 was advancing an increasingly successful national policy agenda; Gore in ’00 perversely ran a campaign that avoided references to that success; and Kerry, of course, had to campaign as a critic, not as an achiever).The downward trajectory of the southern Dem vote between ’96 and ’04 also reflected demographic trends which I discussed in my earlier answer to Armando–trends that may not help Republicans that much in the immediate future, as the aging pains of new suburbs and bad GOP governance create a natural backlash that Democrats can exploit if they are smart enough.Armando seizes on my commentary about southern suburban moderates as a Dem target to suggest that maybe the belief that “values voters” are the key to the South is wrong.Well, that depends on your definition of “values voters.” If it means people who want to criminalize abortions, demonize gays and lesbians, or institutionalize evangelical Christianity, then no, suburban southerners don’t generally fit that category, and I’d personally write them off as targets even if that were the case, on both practical and moral grounds.My own (and generally, the DLC’s) definition of “values voters” is quite different. They are people who: (a) don’t must trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don’t much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don’t much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don’t much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications.By that definition, I think southern suburban moderates, and especially women in that demographic, are definitely “values voters.” In answer to Armando’s particular question about how suburban southerners would react to that wingnut in Kansas who wants to explore the sexual histories of women seeking abortions, I think the simple answer is that they would say: “Mind your own business, boy! Aren’t there some criminals out there you ought to be chasing?”Somebody at Vanderbilt once wrote a book entitled “The South’s Compulsive Need to Explain.” In that spirit, I hope the debate over the region and its political future continues. Clearly, Earle and Merle Black need some real competition.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
When an underwhelming primary rival to Brian Kemp announced his candidacy I took a look at the Georgia governor’s comeback strategy and wrote it up at New York.
Until March 25, Georgia governor Brian Kemp was looking pretty finished politically. Very publicly and vociferously blamed by Donald Trump for ratifying Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s certification of Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia on November 20, Kemp was persona non grata in MAGA country. He had already been periodically in Trump’s doghouse over his handling of the pandemic in his state, and before that, over his rejection of the Boss’s instruction that he appoint Representative Doug Collins to an open U.S. Senate seat. But getting in the way of the 45th president’s attempted election coup was the final straw: Trump has been publicly and privately vowing to take down Kemp in next year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, as recently as the RNC donor retreat in Florida last weekend. During his brief campaign appearance in Georgia before the January Senate runoffs that ended in defeat for his party, Trump even called on Collins to challenge Kemp in 2022, which wasn’t exactly a Georgia GOP talking point. Nor was Trump’s later suggestion that Kemp should resign.
Kemp managed to keep his mouth shut in the face of all these provocations, grimly promising to support Trump in 2024 and generally taking his medicine. But his comeback strategy became apparent when he made a big show of signing Georgia’s highly controversial new election law on March 25. It’s unclear whether he deliberately courted the appearance of racist impropriety, though he did sign the bill under a painting of a plantation and barred a Black Democratic legislator from his office during his remarks on the bill. (State Representative Park Cannon was subsequently manhandled by state troopers who wrestled her out of the Georgia Capitol to be arrested on multiple felony counts.)As anger over the legislation mounted (echoing the anger over Kemp’s own voter-suppression measures as Georgia’s secretary of State, the job he insisted on keeping during his narrowly successful 2018 gubernatorial campaign) and major corporations joined the criticism of the law, Kemp was able to adopt a pose that is legal tender for a GOP pol at present: victim of “race card” politics backed by “woke” corporations. As the Associated Press reported, it was very clear to Georgia Republicans what the man who had labeled himself a “politically incorrect conservative” in 2018 was up to:“[T]he sweeping election law could be one of Kemp’s last hopes to rekindle a bond with Republicans who remain fiercely loyal to Trump and will be a critical force in next year’s GOP primary. The legislation, which Kemp signed into law, could give him an opening to persuade Republicans that he is an outsider, willing to stand up to Democrats, corporate leaders, and sports leagues who have derided the measure as an affront to democracy that is based on false claims and needs to be rewritten.
“’This is an absolute godsend for Brian Kemp,’ said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant and former top aide to Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal.”
Kemp has eagerly been making the rounds of conservative media outlets to defend the new law, struggling, no doubt, to hide his glee at the liberal criticism it has attracted. The furor is helping him back home where it matters as well, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein observes:
“In recent weeks, Kemp has been a mainstay on conservative cable TV shows and enjoyed raucous receptions at grassroots meetings across the state, seemingly dissuading better-known Republican rivals such as former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump once recruited to run.”
Morning Consult reports that Kemp’s job-approval rating among Georgia Republicans rose from 59 percent in mid-March to 74 percent in early April. Nonetheless, a well-known Georgia pol close to Trump has now announced a 2022 primary bid against the governor. But his identity could be a blessing in disguise to the incumbent.
Vernon Jones is a Black former state legislator and county CEO who endorsed Trump’s reelection last year and has more recently switched parties. He got a lot of MAGA attention, particularly after his featured role at the GOP National Convention. He has really taken to his new career in Republican politics, speaking at the notorious January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and basking in the affection of the Big Man (“When are you announcing? When are you announcing?” Trump said to Jones at Mar-a-Lago last week).
Jones’s announcement made it clear that he’s the former president’s surrogate.
Jones, however, is a risky proposition as Trump’s instrument of vengeance against Kemp. Aside from the fact that he’s a career Democratic politician from a jurisdiction (the Atlanta inner suburb of Dekalb County) that your average rural Republican wouldn’t visit on a bet, he has always had some issues, as Bluestein explains, calling him “a uniquely polarizing figure in state politics”:
“Jones launched his political career in the early 1990s in the Georgia House before winning the first of two terms as DeKalb County’s chief executive officer in 2000. His stint was marked by controversy …
“[H]is angry outbursts and clashes with other local officials dominated headlines, as did more serious allegations …
“[A] wide-ranging special grand jury report released in 2013, after Jones left office, recommended an investigation against Jones and other DeKalb officials into possible bid-rigging and theft when he was chief executive, painting a picture of a culture of corruption that spanned from his office to workers and contractors in the watershed department.”
Worse yet, Jones was accused of rape in 2005. His successful defense was that the intercourse in question was part of a consensual three-way sexual encounter. This is still not a great look for candidates in the Christian-right- dominated Georgia GOP. And speaking of the Christian right, Jones had a problem with a vote in the legislature against a “fetal heartbeat” abortion ban Kemp had championed in 2019. On the eve of his candidacy, Jones executed a straight-out flip-flop on abortion, stating he now believed zygotes should be protected “from the moment of conception.”
You get the sense that Jones will serve as an irritant to Kemp but not a serious threat unless Trump himself forcefully intervenes in the race (and/or if a more formidable Trump-backed candidate, like Collins, who is reportedly mulling a Senate race, jumps in). And even then, Georgia Republicans will remember that Trump had strongly endorsed Kemp during the last gubernatorial primary. MAGA bravos looking for a pound of flesh may instead focus on Raffensperger, who has drawn an actual member of Congress as his 2022 primary opponent, along with the rival he barely defeated in 2018.
If Kemp does escape, he will likely face a rematch with his nemesis, voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams. And in that contest, all the treasure he has stored up in Republican circles by boasting of his commitment to “election integrity” may earn him a backlash from the voters he and his party have sought to bedevil.