vision 2020

The Perpetually Frustrated Dream of the South Turning Blue

Old times there are not forgotten. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In mid-October, I wrote a long piece about the past, present, and future political trajectory of the southern United States, suggesting the long-awaited emergence of a “New South” once momentarily embodied by former President Jimmy Carter: “You have to guess, as Jimmy Carter turned 96 this month, that he probably feels more comfortable with his region’s politics than at any time since at least the 1990s.”

That ran under the headline: “Will 2020 Be Jimmy Carter’s Revenge?” As of November 4, it’s pretty clear the answer to that question is no.

If Donald Trump hangs on to the leads he holds as of this writing in Georgia and North Carolina, he will have again carried ten of the 11 states of the former Confederacy (all but Virginia). Republicans will completely control the legislatures in those same ten states, along with all 20 of their U.S. Senate seats (pending a January 2021 runoff — or possibly two runoffs — in Georgia in which the GOP will be favored) and the governorship in all but two (Louisiana and North Carolina). Democratic hopes of flipping state legislative chambers in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas — and thus busting up Republican gerrymandering opportunities for the next decade — fell flat.

Objective political observers thought Democrats had a decent chance to win seven Republican-held U.S. House seats in Texas alone. They didn’t gain any net Lone Star State seats at all. But they did lose two supposedly secure seats in Florida, and a seat in South Carolina to boot.

In U.S. Senate races, aside from the slim possibility of a runoff win (or wins) in Georgia, Democrats had a heaping helping of disappointment. Yes, it’s possible that Cal Cunningham will overtake Thom Tillis when all of North Carolina’s ballots are counted. Not that long ago, though, before an unfortunate sexting scandal disrupted his momentum, Cunningham was considered a sure winner, and indeed the linchpin of the Democratic bid to take over the Senate. Nobody considered South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison a lock, but given his incredible fundraising success, nobody foresaw the double-digit blowout win Lindsey Graham appears to have achieved either. For nearly three years Democrats have enjoyed the unlikely presence in Washington of Alabama’s Doug Jones, who won a shocking special Senate election in 2017. That’s all over, after good-old-boy wing nut Tommy Tuberville trounced Jones by 20 points.

Long-suffering southern Democrats who endured excruciatingly close defeats in the 2018 gubernatorial elections in Florida and Georgia and hoped for redemption this year may wonder if they are simply cursed. Truth is this was a disappointing election for Democrats almost everywhere (though the most important prize of the White House is within their grasp). The Latino shortfalls that dashed their hopes in Florida and Texas were not purely local phenomena; nor was the surprising rescission of the suburban blue wave that was so evident in 2018. Democrats needed a very good national performance to consummate regional gains, and they didn’t get it.

Demographic change (rising minority populations and an influx of well-educated transplants) continues to push much of the South toward the Donkey Party, and there were bright spots even this year. At this point the only Democratic takeaway of a Republican U.S. House seat we’ve seen is in the north Atlanta suburban Sixth Congressional District of Georgia, where Carolyn Bordeaux’s narrow lead over Rich McCormack is likely to grow as the final votes come in. And in the next-door Seventh District, a blue wave has been very evident, as Republican Karen Handel’s famous win over Jon Ossoff in a wildly expensive 2017 special election turned into a narrow win for Black gun-safety advocate Lucy McBath over Handel in 2018, and then a comfortable McBath win this year in a rematch.

There remain grounds for Democratic optimism across the region, but it probably doesn’t feel like it for southern Democrats today. It sometimes seems that conservative white voters in exurbs, small towns, and rural areas just achieve previously unimaginable levels of near-unanimous support for Trump and his party whenever their power is threatened. And that’s a story almost as old as the Confederacy itself.

The Perpetually Frustrated Dream of the South Turning Blue