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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Should Dems Whistle Past Dixie?

Thomas Schaller has gotten buckets of buzz (see forum at The Democratic Strategist) with his book “Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South,” the thesis of which is well-encapsulated in the title. The consequences of the strategy he has advocated in his book and TDS articles are far-reaching, and so it seems fair to give his critics’ post-election arguments a hearing. New Donkey Ed Kilgore adds to the fray in his Salon post “Yes, Democrats do need the South!” Rebutting Schaller’s contention that the ’06 election verifies his book’s argument, Kilgore notes:

Since Democrats did in fact gain ground in the South and did not lose a thing, Schaller is at pains to show how meager those gains were in comparison with the gains in other regions. But he largely ignores the constraints of the Southern political landscape this year. In a quirk of the electoral calendar, only five Senate seats were up in the South (accepting Schaller’s definition of “the South” as the 11 states of the old Confederacy), four held by Republicans. Democrats won two, for a net gain of one senator, which is a perfectly proportional contribution to the conquest of the Senate. Similarly, there were six gubernatorial contests in the South, five in seats held by Republicans. Democrats won two for a net gain of one, again a proportional contribution to the national results. (Democrats also won the single Southern governor’s races held in 2004 and in 2005, which means they now control five of the 11 executive offices.)

Kilgore concedes that Democratic candidates for the House did not do quite so well in the South. However, he explains:

There’s no question Democrats underperformed in Southern House races, picking up five net seats (with a sixth and a seventh possible in disputed races in North Carolina and Florida). But it should be remembered that nearly half the region’s House seats are in three super-gerrymandered states, Texas, Florida and Georgia. Schaller emphasizes two near losses by Democratic incumbents in my home state of Georgia. But in fairness, he should acknowledge that both of these districts were re-gerrymandered by the Republican Legislature last year, making Jim Marshall’s district (the 8th) significantly more Republican, and taking John Barrow’s home base out of his district (the 12th) entirely. The close Georgia outcomes also owed a lot to the decision of the national GOP to make Marshall and Barrow two of the three incumbents they spent heavily to defeat, in the end falling short.

In terms of state legislatures, the South doesn’t look all that red either. Schaller has recently noted that the South accounted for a small percentage of Democratic gains in the state legislatures. Kilgore responds:

But the national seat-gain number is distorted by big Democratic pickups in the mammoth New Hampshire House, and Democrats were already stronger in Southern legislatures than in many other parts of the country. As of today, each party controls five Southern state legislatures, with one split (Tennessee). Not too shabby.

Kilgore has more to say about the South’s larger number of electoral votes, compared to the “promised land” of the Mountain West and about recent demographic trends favoring Democrats below the Mason-Dixon line. Kilgore’s concern that Schaller’s argument will morph into an attack on southern culture appears to be less well-founded. And, to be fair, Schaller’s book is subtitled “How Democrats Can Win Without the South,” not “How Democrats Must Win Without the South” (In addition to his TDS articles, Schaller has another post-election analysis here and he answers some of his post-election critics here). But if Kilgore’s rebuttal falls short of making the case for a true “50 state campaign” in ’08, he has made a pretty good case for an all regions campaign.