politics

A Different Kind of Democratic Party Is Rising in the South

Congresswoman-elect Elaine Luria of Virginia belongs to a newer breed of southern Democrats. Photo: Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP

On one level, the Democratic Party in the South emerged from the midterm elections of 2018 looking as supine as it generally has in recent years. Democrats lost (unless late ballots overturn the apparent defeat of Bill Nelson) one of their 4 senators in the 11 states of the former Confederacy. They were 0-for-7 in governor’s races (with the same proviso about late ballots in Florida, and possibly in Georgia). They still do not control a single state legislative chamber in the region.

But in scattered U.S. House races, and in certain surprisingly viable statewide candidacies as well, you can see a Democratic revival in the South, and one that is likely more durable in its reliance on ascending rather than declining demographic configurations. Just as importantly, these southern Democrats are for the most part unapologetically left of center, and sometimes outspokenly progressive, and are thus an active element of a national party for the first time since the New Deal. Until very recently, the Democratic constituency of the South was an uneasy coalition of disgruntled, conservative white voters perpetually on the brink of defection, and loyal black voters who felt unappreciated and underrepresented. At different paces in different states, but all throughout the region, a new suburban-minority coalition is emerging. It may never achieve majority status in areas that are too white or too rural to sustain it. But it is showing great promise in enough states to make the South’s political future an open question for the first time in this millennium.

Democrats picked up at least nine House seats in the South on November 6, and three other uncalled races could still go their way. Ten of the 12 races were in urban-suburban districts. None of the winning candidates are old-school, blue dog conservative Democrats. Seven are women. Two are African-American, one is Latina, and another is Jewish. You did occasionally see some old-fashioned southern cultural markers in these candidates: the fact that Virginia’s Elaine Luria was a Naval Academy graduate with a distinguished military record helped her win a military-heavy tidewater district. But nobody was snuggling up to Donald Trump or attacking the national Democratic Party, which used to be second nature for southern Democrats.

Nearly successful statewide candidates in the South for the most part represented just as much of a new wave. Obviously, Florida and Georgia gubernatorial nominees Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams were unlike their Democratic predecessors in almost every respect, most obviously in their race (they were the first African-American gubernatorial nominees in the South since Doug Wilder’s breakthrough candidacy in 1989). Gillum ran as a Bernie-Sanders-style progressive who supported single-payer health care. Abrams was a bit less ideological, but did campaign on her record as the state’s preeminent advocate and organizer for minority voters, and was clearly the most progressive Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia history. Yet Gillum won the highest percentage of the vote of any Democratic candidate for governor of Florida since 1994, and Abrams outstripped any Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia since 1998.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s emphatically progressive Senate campaign won the highest percentage for any Democratic gubernatorial or Senate candidate since 1990.

After this year’s developments, Georgia or Florida or Texas Democrats are very unlikely to return to the old blue dog formula of running white statewide candidates who cling to the center or center-right on issues while expecting minority voters to play along in order to keep Republicans out of office. Even in states like Alabama and Mississippi, which do not have a plethora of wealthy suburbs with relatively liberal white voters to form coalitions with minority voters, change is in the air. Doug Jones, who won his improbable 2017 Senate race on the wings of supercharged African-American turnout, is well to the left of prior statewide Democratic candidates in Alabama. And African-American former congressman Mike Espy will face appointed Republican senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in a November 27 special election runoff that could provide another test of newfound Democratic strength.

At the substate level, Democratic wins and near-wins in urban-suburban House races will likely become a regular occurrence in the South — as will candidate platforms and messages similar to those of Democrats in the rest of the country. Georgia’s Lucy McBath, who ousted Republican veteran Karen Handel in the same north Atlanta suburban district where Jon Ossoff fell just-short in 2017, is an African-American best known as a national advocate for gun control. That kind of candidacy succeeding, in Newt Gingrich’s old district no less, would have been unimaginable in Georgia until, well, now. Nine of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation next year will be Democrats, and the most conservative of them could well be Senator Mark Warner.

The transformation of the southern Democratic Party won’t be entirely uniform. In a state like Tennessee, with its relatively low minority population and sizable rural areas, there isn’t much potential statewide for the kind of suburban-minority coalitions we’re seeing elsewhere. It’s not surprising that Democrats there turned to their last statewide office-holder, former governor Phil Bredesen, as a Senate candidate this year – nor that Bredesen ultimately fell short despite all but denying his affiliation with his national party.

There is more than demographics, however, behind the new wave of southern Democrats. Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has reinforced its most atavistic tendencies, which in the South, as elsewhere, are inhibiting the GOP’s ability to become a stable governing party. Georgia is a state long accustomed to subtly race-tinged conservative politics. But this year’s gubernatorial campaign from Republican Brian Kemp was a throwback to a rawer right-wing era, with his attacks on “outside agitators,” his proud boasts of being “politically incorrect,” and his blatant defiance of voting rights as the state’s chief election officer. Even if southern Democrats move markedly to the left, the region’s Republicans are poorly positioned to move anywhere close to the center.

The 2020 presidential election could provide a very good test of the South’s political future. In much of the recent past, the largely Republican makeup of voters in presidential elections made presidential election years especially difficult for southern Democrats (in some states, ballots featured options to make it easy to vote Republican for president and straight Democratic down-ballot). With both parties beginning to more closely resemble their national leaderships at large, that’s not so much the case anymore. As recently as 2000 and 2004, Republicans won every single electoral vote from the former Confederate states. Virginia has now voted Democratic in three straight presidential elections. Florida went Democratic in 2008 and 2012, and North Carolina was carried by Obama once, in 2008. Virginia should now be considered a reasonably solid blue state; Florida and North Carolina are purple; and Georgia and Texas are most definitely trending in that direction. It’s not at all unimaginable that all these states could go Democratic in 2020 if it’s a good year for Democrats nationally.

At both the presidential level and down-ballot, the days of southern Democrats writing off statewide races and urban-suburban House races is probably over, and with it, the habit of running candidates who spent half their time distancing themselves from their party and its big-ticket causes and constituencies. The fundraising magic of Beto O’Rourke and the get-out-the-vote drives of Stacey Abrams have made their mark, and will be replicated. The South may never be a reliably Democratic region again. But change is not only coming — it’s happening now.

A Different Kind of Democratic Party Is Rising in the South