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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Arceneaux: Dems Can Win South by Affirming Racial Equality and Economic Populism

Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and a former director of the Louisiana Democratic Party has a post up at Politico, “Painting Dixie Blue: Can Democrats retake the South? Yes, and here’s how,” which is undoubtedly getting a read by strategists in both parties. Arceneaux begins with a bleak profile of the current political reality:

Often you need to hit bottom before you can start working your way back up. We Southern Democrats are basically at that point. With control of only two of 22 legislative bodies, three of 11 governors’ mansions and precious few other statewide offices, Southern Democrats are an endangered species indeed…Between 1992 and 2012 Republicans won the governorships and legislatures of all but two Southern states…And this year, Democrats aren’t even fielding a candidate for Alabama’s U.S. Senate race.

Arceneaux acknowledges the centrality of racial justice as an ongoing issue of concern in the region. He urges Dems to more vigorously embrace racial equality as a widely-held value most southerners can support, if put in a context of fairness and equal opportunity, two concepts that Republicans can’t even discuss with much credibility. Coupled with state-of-the-art voter targeting and turnout, such an approach could help Dems pick up a few percentage points in some statewide elections and well-chosen congressional and state legislative districts. Arceneaux adds:

This is something the Republicans–trapped by their base and their history–simply cannot do. And it is the core not only of their utter lack of support within the black community but also of their problem with Hispanic voters, the South’s fastest-growing demographic. Of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations from 2000 to 2011, all but two are in the South, with Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee topping the list, and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans. To win over these new voters, Republicans must change their understanding of their own history. The past year has shown just how hard that is. All Democrats must do is embrace our history.

Arceneaux argues that Dems can get a bigger bite of the votes of white southerners by tapping the region’s tradition of economic populism.

The crux of the problem for Southern Democrats comes down to this: While voters are moving beyond race, they still do not trust us with their money. For close to 30 years, we haven’t consistently told Southern voters why they should. Voters in the South trust Democrats on education, racial equality, health care and the environment, but we frankly can’t get swing voters to listen to us until they first trust us with their tax dollars. Republicans have run a relentless campaign to connect Southern Democrats with all things taboo to fiscally conservative white swing voters: higher taxes, welfare, government handouts and bigger government overall. All buttressed by racial overtones, mostly covertly, sometimes overtly.
Democrats can get this right. Populism runs deep in the South. And Southern voters, like those nationally, are becoming more sensitive to the battle of Wall Street vs. Main Street, of income inequality and expanding opportunity. Swing voters in places like Florida’s I-4 corridor and the suburbs of Atlanta and Charlotte are getting it. Democrats need to stop talking about the difference between big government and smaller government, higher or lower taxes, more or fewer programs…Democrats need to be talking instead about effective and efficient government that works for people, not against them. We need to stop being afraid to talk about money, and start talking about money in terms of helping the most people at the least cost…

Best of all, argues Arceneaux, this is precisely where Republicans are weakest: “They no longer talk about less government; they are talking about no government. That is not where voters are.” He cites Clinton as an excellent role model for Democratic candidates in the south, and further,

To win, Southern Democrats must seize the true populist message: Government must work, it must work for you, not the special interests, and it should work in the most effective and efficient way. Voters can trust us with their tax dollars, and we need to tell them why. James Carville, another Louisiana native son, said it best more than 20 years ago: It’s the economy, stupid. In other words, it’s the money. If you can’t talk about it in a way that makes voters comfortable, you can’t win.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Dems, Arceneaux believes, is the failure to invest in building the Democraic party in the south. He notes that the Mississippi Democratic party has about $3,000 banked, “barely enough to keep the lights on.” That’s a sorry cash position, especially in a state that has the largest percentage of African Americans. Virginia, on the other hand, is ‘exhibit A’ for what can happen when Dems make an adequate investment in a southern state:

Add to this a strong state party built in the early 2000s by Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine when they were governors, and the recipe for success is clear. Cutting-edge technology and modeling, one of the best voter files in the country and well-nurtured grass roots, coupled with messaging centered on fiscal responsibility (pioneered by Warner in 2001), produced a Democratic sweep in 2013 for the first time since the 1960s.

Arceneaux points to other states like FL, NC, GA and even TX as states where Dems could benefit from similar strategic messaging and resource investment. Arceneaux’s post is accompanied by an informative sidebar on 2014 Dem prospects in particular states, “Dixie Blues,” by Margaret Slattery.

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