The plight of the Southern Democrat

Southern Democrats who lost key races this election cycle

Story highlights

  • Once the South's dominant party, Democrats suffered devastating losses in 2014
  • One longtime observer says he can't remember it being any gloomier for Southern Dems
  • "The party has been demonized by Republicans. It's very bleak," says Curtis Wilkie
  • Now, Democrats are looking everywhere for solutions for their Southern problem
The 2014 elections seemed like the final reckoning for Southern Democrats, the culmination of a political metamorphosis that began in the Civil Rights era and concluded under the nation's first black President.
Wiped out in governors' races, clobbered in Senate contests, irrelevant in many House districts and boxed out of state legislatures, Democrats in the South today look like a rump party consigned to a lifetime of indignity.
"I can't remember it being any gloomier for Democrats in the South than it is today," said Curtis Wilkie, the longtime journalist and observer of Southern life who lectures at the University of Mississippi. "The party has been demonized by Republicans. It's very bleak. I just don't see anything good for them on the horizon."
Democrats are looking everywhere for solutions to their Southern problem. They hope population changes will make states such as Georgia and North Carolina more hospitable. They want more financial help from the national party. Some are even clinging to the dim hope that Hillary Clinton might help make inroads with white working class voters in Arkansas in 2016.
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Success here is crucial for the party. There's virtually no way for Democrats to win back a majority in the Senate -- much less the House -- without finding a way to compete more effectively in the South. But the truth is there are no easy answers for a party so deep in the hole.
White voters have abandoned Democrats for decades, and the flight has only hastened under President Barack Obama. The migration has created a troublesome math problem: Democrats across the region now depend on African-American voters and not much else.
It's a disastrous formula in low-turnout midterms dominated by white voters. In Louisiana on Saturday, deep south Democrats bid farewell to their last remaining Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, who won the African-American vote but failed to secure enough white support in her race against Republican Bill Cassidy. Landrieu won just 18 percent of white voters on Election Day in November, and she failed to expand that margin in the runoff, resulting in another knife-twisting loss for Democrats hoping to put the devastating 2014 midterms behind them.
With Landrieu's loss, there are now just three Democrats senators hailing from the Old Confederacy: Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in Virginia, and Bill Nelson in Florida. But both of those states have diverse populations and thriving economies that have pushed them away, culturally and politically, from their southern neighbors.
"Lyndon Johnson made it very clear when he signed the Civil Rights Act back in 1964 what the impact was going to be on his party, the Democrats, and their relationship with southern white voters," said South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the House's highest-ranking African-American and the only Democrat from his state in Congress.
Lost for a generation
After signing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson is reputed to have said that Democrats have lost the South for a generation. Whether Johnson actually uttered those words is in question — but the Democratic Party's fading fortunes are not.
In South Carolina, Democrats lost every race for statewide office and won only a single House seat — the reliably-blue, majority-African-American district represented by Clyburn. In Georgia, even with Peach State brand names like Nunn and Carter on the ballot, Democrats only mustered support from a quarter of white voters in the contested Senate and governor's races. In Arkansas, Republicans gained total control of the governor's mansion and the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Sorting through the post-election wreckage, Democratic leaders across the region are pessimistic about the party ever re-claiming its status as the majority party. The challenge of reclaiming state legislatures, race-by-race, is a particularly daunting one.
But Democrats also dismiss the funereal commentary about their party, often pegged to the 10-point loss of Georgia's resilient, gun-brandishing John Barrow, the last remaining white Democrat from the deep South in the House.
"I don't think you can make generalizations," said Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, who was thumped by nearly 20 points despite his two-terms in the Senate, deep roots in the state and the Bible he wielded in a campaign ad. "Every state is different."
In states with changing demographics and thriving urban centers like Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, Democrats are optimistic the states will grow ever friendlier by the next election cycle. South Carolina and Tennessee are more difficult hills to climb, but both states are seeing urban population growth and a continual influx of out-of-staters seeking warmer climates and friendlier tax rates. The forecast is grimmer in more rural, conservative states — like Mississippi and Alabama — with negligible growth rates.
Wherever they stood, 2014 was a uniquely bad cycle for Southern Democrats.
A stew of toxic factors wreaked havoc on the party's candidates: narrowly-focused campaign messages that did little to address economic anxieties, historic voter apathy, the cyclical second-term drag of a party in power, and an unpopular President who not only struggled to sell his economic achievements but has proven singularly incapable of connecting with white Southerners.
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"Obama was a huge drag on the party, not just in the South, but across much of the country," said William Winter, the former Democratic governor of Mississippi. "He was not articulating a message that I think people respond to. He was well-meaning in his efforts, but he is not in touch with people in the country, and especially in the South."
Winter, a moderate whose 1980 election is still remembered fondly by Mississippi Democrats who were struggling to move past their party's ugly racial history, said Obama's skin color is "unfortunately" a driver of his unpopularity in the South. But he said the national party's dismal standing had more to do with a message that focused on small-bore issues like contraception or minimum wage increases rather than a unifying, big-picture theme that focuses on middle-class economics.
Democrats should embrace a pro-business mentality, Winter said, singling out "the ideas that Bill Clinton was selling." He bristled at the Elizabeth Warren-style confrontational populism that's taken hold among Democrats elsewhere in the country.
"I don't think we can win on that," Winter said. "If we are not perceived as too far to the left, we can win. I think the South wants to be a part of mainstream America, politically and in every every other way. I think we play on that and let common sense dictate our positions. And it has to be done in concert with the business community. We have alienated a lot of the business community. The business community has a huge stake in maintaining a stable economic and social and educational environment."
The clash between the center and the left mirrors a larger national debate within the Democratic Party — and it also reflects a schism among Democrats in different parts of Dixie.
In the deeper South, it's impossible for Democrats to win without persuading a respectable slice of moderate or conservative white voters. The challenge there is more existential.
"We have to find a way to reconnect," said Clarke Tucker, a newly-elected Democratic member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. "A lot of the policies that we are pushing help everyone, including the white population."
In his Little Rock district, the 33-year old Tucker said he campaigned on "the issues that are going to move us forward as Democrats in the South, and those are growing the economy, creating jobs and improving education."
His Republican opponent, he said with a hint of relief, did not try to tie him to Obama.
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North Carolina
It's a different story in North Carolina, where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was defeated despite running a near-perfect campaign and driving up turnout among non-white voters. Her Republican opponent Thom Tillis relentlessly linked Hagan with Obama, whose job approval in North Carolina exit polls was 43 percent — better than in other Southern states, but still ugly.
Democrats in North Carolina are grumpy about the outcome -- but they aren't writing their obituaries yet.
Both the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham areas continue to grow at a rapid clip, attracting affluent, educated voters from other parts of the country who aren't beholden to the state's conservative traditions. In just four years, the Research Triangle hub of Wake County has added almost 100,000 new residents and now has a population of over 1 million people.
That makes for an electorate closely resembling the national Democratic coalition under Obama in 2008 and 2012, made up of urbanized young professionals, including unmarried women, as well as African-Americans and Hispanics. In higher-turnout presidential years, North Carolina is just as winnable for Democrats as it was when Obama won the state's 15 electoral votes in 2008 — even as rural whites flee the party.
Midterms, though, remain a challenge.
"The landscape has shifted dramatically over the last six years for Democrats in the South," said Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist. "Since the 1960s, Democrats ran for cover during presidential election years and used the midterm elections to reclaim seats and expand the majorities. The new math is that Southern Democrats fully embrace the expanded presidential election turnout in order to win races. In the midterms, the goal is survival, period."
GOP state house dominance
After the Republican wave of 2010, the GOP gained a chokehold on state houses that gave them the power to shape state legislative and congressional districts in their favor, drawing advantageous lines for Republican incumbents and jamming Democrats into heavily African-American districts, drastically reducing the number of competitive seats in state and federal races.
Their strength grew in 2014: The GOP now has total control of both legislative chambers in every state in the South, with the exception of the border state of Kentucky. Republicans also have veto-proof supermajorities in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee — putting added pressure on Democrats to fight for seats at the local level before the next round of redistricting in 2020.
"We have got to have a 2020 plan going forward, and that 2020 plan must start in 2015," Clyburn said. "This country is moving to the right and it's going to keep moving to the right unless the voters intervene."
Republican dominance at the state level has raised questions about whether Democrats will be able to groom candidates for higher office in the future. While it's true that their farm team has been drastically reduced over the last four years, a younger generation of Democrats say the worries are overblown.
"I think candidates can emerge from all sorts of places," said Tucker, the Arkansas state legislator. He pointed to Dale Bumpers, the former Arkansas governor and senator who was an unknown lawyer before he came out of nowhere to win the governorship in 1970. Arkansas, Tucker said, has a populist streak that rewards big personalities no matter where they come from.
In Louisiana, Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson pointed to a roster of successful mayors in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and other cities as possible future statewide candidates.
"These are strong Democratic mayors who have been re-elected without problems," Peterson said. "We feel like that is a strong bench for us moving forward to change the tide of the state."
Some Democrats are calling on the national party structure to pay more attention to the South — and spend more money on party staffers and developing down-ballot talent.
Several longingly invoked former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's "50-state strategy," a program that placed Democratic staffers in even the reddest of states with the goal of re-building the party after the 2004 election. It paid off in the 2006 midterms, when Democrats in traditionally Republican states including Kansas and Montana rode a national wave into office.
South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who faltered in his bid for lieutenant governor this year, pointedly criticized the DNC for leaving candidates in his state adrift this year "without a raft or a lifeboat, expecting us to swim." He said the Republican National Committee has "done a diligent job with fund-raising, candidate cultivation, helping people with consultants and building a bench for the future."
Sellers said he received more help from political groups associated with Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley, two potential presidential candidates, than from the DNC.
"For many of us who were running statewide and have been plowing the soil of the South, we feel like the national party didn't do much to help us at all," Sellers said. "We oftentimes try to push and promote the policies of the White House and the national Democrats, but there is no reciprocation. There is a still great deal of hope that's associated with the president of the United States. But people aren't sure what Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC stand for. That was apparent on Nov. 4."
Michael Czin, a spokesman for the DNC, disputed the characterization, saying that state party leaders are "critical partners."
"For a decade, the DNC has invested in all of our state parties year in, and year out, including those in the South," he said. "Whether it's working with state parties to build our voter file, investing in our State Party Partnership which funds staff on the ground, or our voter expansion and protection programs, the DNC is there to support state parties across the South. We have a lot of work to do, but we are proud of our investments in southern states over the last decade."
The Hillary question
And there is the Hillary question. If Clinton runs for the White House, some hopeful Democrats wonder if working-class whites might be more willing to return to the party once Obama is out of the picture.
Winter believes Clinton would help Democrats down the ballot even if she doesn't win any Southern states. "Bill and Hillary Clinton are part of the South," he said. "They understand the South and they understand the use of political strategies that will bring people in. They are moderate people, and most people in the South are moderate."
Some Clinton supporters have speculated that she might even put her former home state of Arkansas in play come November 2016. The possibility was floated earlier this month by Mitch Stewart, a numbers-crunching former Obama strategist who advises the Ready For Hillary super PAC.
Stewart said Clinton could favorably alter the post-Obama presidential map by making Arkansas, Missouri and Indiana competitive in 2016.
"Where I think Secretary Clinton has more appeal than any other Democrat looking at running is that with white working-class voters, she does have a connection," Stewart told Talking Points Memo. "I think she's best positioned to open those states."
The idea seems plausible enough in Missouri and Indiana, two states with large urban centers, but less so in Arkansas. The Clintons' travel schedule in 2014 spoke volumes: Bill campaigned relentlessly in the state this year for Pryor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross — but the more polarizing Hillary was kept at a safe distance. She never set foot in Arkansas in 2014, opting instead to raise money for Pryor from a safe distance, at a fundraiser in Manhattan.
What seems more likely is that North Carolina and perhaps Georgia, with their ever-mutating demographics, would be on the early map should Clinton decide to run for the White House.
Clyburn, though, waved off the Clinton-specific theories, saying that southern Democrats will get a built-in turnout boost no matter who is on the White House ticket, given the turnout spike that usually occurs in presidential years.
"Would be Hillary be helpful? Yes she would," Clyburn said. "But she is not the only one who would help. There are a lot of Democrats at the top of the ticket who would be helpful. Would Elizabeth Warren be helpful. Yes she would. Would Joe Biden be helpful? Yes he would. I don't agree with this whole notion that it has to Hillary Clinton or it won't be a positive. I don't think that's the case at all. A presidential year is going to be helpful for us."
To others, that all seems like happy talk.
Wilkie, speaking over the phone from his office at Ole Miss, was less charitable than Clyburn.
"Good luck finding a silver lining in your story," he said in his honeyed drawl. "I'm not sure you'll be able to."