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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems ‘New Southern Strategy’ Emerging…Carefully

Ronald Brownstein’s “Democrats have a new Southern strategy” at CNN Politics provides a solid update of Democratic prospects in the region. In the euphoric wake of the election of Alabama’s Doug Jones, however, a couple of adjustmentss may help Dems get a workable strategy on track.

Brownstein writes that “the coalition that Jones mobilized closely resembled the voter alignments that have powered other recent Democratic victories in governors’ races in Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana.” Further,

…Above all, Jones demonstrated that Democrats could simultaneously inspire passionate turnout from their base supporters, led by African-Americans, and make inroads with centrist white-collar white voters — each of which, for different reasons, is recoiling from Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency. That combination allowed Jones to overcome Moore’s lopsided margins among blue-collar, evangelical, older and rural whites — the four building blocks of the Trump coalition…Keeping momentum and agreement among those groups won’t be easy, but Democrats see it as a possible pathway to majorities in the 2018 midterm elections.

…Jones’ victory was centered on minorities, millennial voters and college-educated suburban whites, especially women. That’s exactly the formula Democrats now depend on in most states. But even with strong African-American support, Southern Democrats until recently come up short, largely because they haven’t attracted nearly as many college-educated whites as their party does elsewhere.

Now, with Democratic constituencies energized and suburban swing voters uneasy about Trump, Southern Democrats are suddenly finding it more possibe to assemble the coalition that the party relies on in other regions. And that could create new opportunities for Democrats across the South, most immediately in suburban House districts in 2018, but potentially also in statewide contests such as the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia and Senate battle in Tennessee.

Brownstein acknowledges that “Jones benefited from the unique vulnerabilities of his opponent, Republican Roy Moore, who was a deeply polarizing figure even before he was besieged by allegations that he had pursued relationships with teenage girls, some of them underage, while in his 30s.” In addition, Jones was a uniquely well-qualified candidate in terms of the interracial bridge-building the south (and America) so urgently needs. As the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, who secured convictions of Ku Klux Klansmen Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, the perpetrators of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church in 1963, which took the lives of four young girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, Jones had significant credibility with Alabama’s African American voters, particularly Black women.

Jones, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, did not just stumble into the case and do a competent job of securing a measure of justice for the victims of this horrific atrocity. He took real initiative and demonstrated extraordinary tenacity in winning the case. Alabama is somewhat unique in the south in that its African American activist community has carried forward the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement to a significant extent. Some veterans of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama are still alive and their children are carrying forward the acitivist tradition to a new generation. They  found a worthy state-wide candidate in Jones, whose track record merited the energetic voter mobilization in the state’s Black communities that won the day for the Democratic candidate.

That’s not to say that investing more resources in African American communities in other southern states won’t pay off for Dems; it probably will. But Jones’s victory in Alabama underscores the importance of Dems running really good candidates in the south, who have demonstrated credibility in terms of interracial bridge-building.

Jones and his campaign manager Joe Trippi also played a very smart hand with respect to white voters. They navigated a nuanced strategy that mined the vein of educated white voters who were ready to vote Democratic, without alienating Republican voters who were disgusted with Moore and who were likely to skip voting on election day. As Ed Kilgore notes at New York Magazine, “Jones threaded a difficult needle by being moderate enough for white voters while having a deep and authentic connection with African-Americans.” Jones and Trippi skillfully avoided the myriad booby traps awaiting a Democratic candidate in 2017 Alabama. Credit Jones and Trippi also with a tireless work ethic — Jones showed up everywhere in Alabama and put in the time needed to cement the critical personal relationships that can make a real difference in a close race.

Democrats should also note that, while white non-college voters, went overwhelmingly for Republicans in the special elections of 2017, there is not a lot of wiggle room left here. In close elections, Dems can’t afford to lose more of these numerous voters, who are about 45 percent of the electorate, nation-wide, perhaps more in the south. There is also the possibility that adept Democratic candidates can actually improve performance with white, non-college voters, without alienating African American voters. Even a small improvement could produce stable, enduring Democratic majorities in key purple states, especially FL, NC and VA.

Another problem with any unified field ‘southern strategy’ theory is that there are major differences in the demographics of southern states, particularly with respect to African American voters — who are 37.3 percent in Mississippi, but just 11.9 percent in Texas. Democrats aren’t going to get much traction in many southern states without making at least some headway with white working-class voters.

So Democrats should tread carefully in talking about a creating a new southern strategy. But Dems can certainly do better in the south with good candidates and well-crafted strategy — and the Jones campaign does indeed provide some instructive lessons.

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