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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Southern Dems Down, But Not Out

If we’re going to be good sports like the President and admit Dems got ‘shellacked’ in the midterms, then it’s fair to say we got pulverized in the south. On that topic, Jonathan Martin is getting buzz with his Politico article “Democratic South Finally Falls.
Martin’s title seems a little melodramatic, considering most of the south has been red territory for a few cycles. But Martin makes a persuasive case, mining a couple of angles:

After suffering a historic rout — in which nearly every white Deep South Democrat in the U.S. House was defeated and Republicans took over or gained seats in legislatures across the region — the party’s ranks in Dixie have thinned even further.
…this year’s elections, and the subsequent party switching, have made unambiguously clear is that the last ramparts have fallen and political realignment has finally taken hold in one of the South’s last citadels of Democratic strength: the statehouses.
…Democrats lost both chambers of the legislature this year in North Carolina and Alabama, meaning that they now control both houses of the capitol in just two Southern states, Arkansas and Mississippi, the latter of which could flip to the GOP in the next election…The losses and party switching, one former Southern Democratic governor noted, “leave us with little bench for upcoming and future elections.”

And according to the Associated Press,

In Alabama, four Democrats announced last week they were joining the GOP, giving Republicans a supermajority in the House that allows them to pass legislation without any support from the other party. The party switch of a Democratic lawmaker from New Orleans handed control of Louisiana’s House to Republicans for the first time since Reconstruction.
In Georgia, six rural Democratic state legislators — five from the House and one in the Senate — have switched allegiance to the GOP since Nov. 2…In Georgia, the GOP swept every statewide office this year and brought, in the words of state Rep. Alan Powell, “an effective end, at least for the foreseeable future, to the two-party system in state government.”

Martin says ten Democrats in southern state legislatures are switching party affiliation to the GOP, and yes, there will undoubtedly be more. But I’m not too worried about the “bench” factor. Most southern cities have Democratic mayors, and some of them are going to run impressive statewide campaigns in future cycles when the economy is not so sour. Grim as it seems now, we will see southern Democratic governors and U.S. Senators being sworn in down the road. As Martin acknowledges:

For all the bad tidings, there is one important development that could bode well for Democrats in some Southern states. While they may never get back the rural areas that once served as their bulwark, Southern Democrats are now competitive in some fast-growing suburbs in states that have a significant number of transplants. There was a reason why Obama won Virginia and North Carolina in 2008 — both are filled with newcomers who are open to supporting either party.
“The more metropolitan a state has become, the more resilience that gives Democrats,” said Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics at the University of North Carolina.
So even as Democrats lose long-held seats in places like rural eastern North Carolina, they can potentially make up the difference by capturing districts around Charlotte and the Research Triangle. “As those metro areas continue to grow, Democrats can find a new base of support,” Guillory said.

The main flaw in Martin’s article is that he doesn’t put the pro-Republican trend in the southeast in economic context. According to the most recent BLS data, two-thirds of southeastern states have higher unemployment rates than the national average (9.6 percent in October). The anger about the economy is at least as palpable and politically-consequential in the southeast as it is in the rust belt and elsewhere. If the economy rebounds during the next two years, the GOP will lose some of its edge in the south.
Large African American populations in southern states, particularly MS (37.1 percent), LA (31.5), GA (29.7), SC (28.3) and AL (26.2), will eventually serve as a solid base for Democratic candidates who only have to win the support of a third or so of white voters to get elected. NC (21.2 percent black pop.) and VA (19.5) have the additional demographic factor of rapid in-migration from residents of less conservative states.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latino voters are still a small segment of southern voters, with the exception of Florida, where they were 14.5 percent of eligible voters in 2008, followed by VA, where Latinos comprised just 3.3 percent of eligible voters. While Florida’s Cuban-Americans have tended to vote Republican, they are today less than a third of FL Latinos. Meanwhile, Hispanics as a demographic group are growing rapidly in NC and GA.
Despite the daunting situation facing Democrats in the south in the wake of the midterms, there is cause for optimism about the future — particularly if Dems invest needed resources in party-building and leadership development in the region. If we are going to be a healthy political party with strong roots and a promising future, we have to work at being competitive everywhere.

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