Facing South

Election Lesson: Democrats, DON'T write off the South

Facing South
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This post, along with earlier entries here, here and here, will be part of ongoing analysis we'll be doing at Facing South about the 2006 elections and the South. Stay tuned for more in the future.

The Democratic and progressive South-bashers are at it again.

In the wake of the 2006 mid-terms, a host of Democrats and progressives are once again saying that it's time to write off the South. Throw out Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, they say, especially in those backwards, southwards states. The November elections prove that the North is the Democrats' base, and the Midwest and West are the Democrats' future.

Nonsense. If anything, the 2006 elections underscore just how critical the South is to Democratic hopes across the country (Virginia Senate, anyone?). They also show that the South is a highly competitive region for Democrats, and that to cut and run would spell disaster for the party's future.

The current guru of the "forget the South" movement is Tom Schaller, the author of Whistling Past Dixie, a book which counsels Democrats to abandon the region in search of easier political pick-ups in the North and Midwest (in contrast to other Dixie doubters, who argue Democrats should look West). It was such beliefs that drove Schaller to make this bold prediction in the pages of In These Times last month ("Where the Seats Are," October 23, 2006):

"Whatever the magnitude of the coming changes, two things are certain: The Democrats are going to gain seats in the 2006 midterms, and those gains will come from outside the South."

Oops. That "certain" prediction, which collided with the reality of key Democratic gains in the South on November 6, may have been off-base - but not as much as Schaller's musings about the U.S. Senate, from the same article:

"None of the five targets [for Democrats in the Senate] are in the South ... Current Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) is a formidable campaigner who hopes to take the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, and the "macaca" blunder of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) has breathed new life into party-switcher Jim Webb's Virginia campaign. But these two seats are considered second-tier opportunities."

Right. Tell that to the Democrats, who - fortunately for them -- ignored Schaller's advice and instead made both states competitive by injecting millions of dollars and dispatching top-shelf campaigners like Bill Clinton in the final hours. Tell it also to millions of Democrats nationally, who stayed glued to TVs and blogs for over a day as the Webb race decided the fate of the U.S. Senate.

But back to the predicted "no" gains in the House from the South. At the end of Election Day 2006, Southern Democrats had seized no less than five seats previously held by Republicans in the U.S. House, in Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas.

The next morning, another three Southern House races - Georgia's 8th and 12th districts, and North Carolina's 8th - were still "too close to call." Since then, Democrat Jim Marshall has been declared the winner in Georgia-08; Democrat John Barrows leads in still-undecided Georgia-12; and Democratic candidate Larry Kissell has successfully asked for a recount in the NC-08 race, where he trails by a tiny 449 vote margin.

On top of that, there were two more Southern races - Virginia's 2nd District and Florida's 13th - that Republicans won by less than two percentage points. In the Florida race, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that Democrat Christine Jennings' race with Republican Vern Buchanan was "the second closest in the country" - Jennings lost by 368 votes - and likely would have gone the other way except for voting machine problems that led to 18,000 "undervotes" in Democratic strongholds. A recount is in the works.

In other words: out of the 19 "key races" in the South followed by political analysts, Democrats won eight; will likely win one more (GA-12); should have won FL-13; could still pick up NC-08; and narrowly missed in VA-02.

Despite this 47% victory rate - and that Democrats were competitive in 63% of these key Southern races -- I have yet to see the South-naysayers express doubts about their "certain" analysis.

Of course, any pundit can be wrong -- it's an occupational hazard of the job -- but if there's a defining feature of the "forget the South" crowd, it's their certainty. Pre-elections, In These Times exclaimed that "Anything that argues counter to Tom Schaller's compelling October examination of 'Where the Seats Are' can be safely dismissed as non-reality based." Post-November 6, Chris Bowers of the popular MyDD blog giddily declared that "This is the first time in 54 years that the party without a southern majority now has the House majority ... Tom Schaller utterly vindicated."

Such sentiments can be found echoing throughout the blogosphere.

But whose "reality" is "vindicated" by the 2006 election results? In addition to the key House victories for Democrats in the South, consider the following:

* Out of six U.S. Senate races in the South, Democrats and Republicans split four uncompetitive races (Florida and West Virginia for the Dems; Mississippi and Texas for the GOP).

* In the two competitive U.S. Senate races, Democrats won Virginia, and they narrowly missed electing the first African American Senator in the South since Reconstruction - a remarkable achievement given that by mid-October, Republican Bob Corker had outspent Ford by over $3 million, and that was before Corker dumped another $1.35 million of his own money into the race days before the election.

* Democrats gained 26 seats in state legislatures across the South, and Republicans lost 20 in the region. Although no chamber switched hands (the Tennessee senate came closest, Democrats missing by one race), Democrats strengthened their position in eight Southern states. The Republicans only did that in one state, Alabama, where Democrats still control the legislature.

* Out of seven governor's races in the South, Democrats were able to flip control to their party in Arkansas, something Republicans didn't achieve in the region. Weak candidates doomed Democratic challengers to GOP incumbents in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and a bizarre four-way field didn't help Democrats in Texas. But the Democrats held on to the governor's mansion in Tennessee, and gave the well-financed campaign of Charlie Crist a run for its money in Florida.

But perhaps even more importantly, exit polls in the region reveal that the South - far from being a conservative monolith - is deeply contested political territory. Here are results from CNN's exit polls of those voting in House races:

* The race divide. 62% of Southern whites voted Republican, while 87% of African-Americans, 57% of Latinos, and 52% of "others" voted Democrat. This is ominous for Republicans, given that the four states nationally with the fastest-growing Latino population are in the South, and Georgia and Mississippi are on the brink of joining Texas as so-called "majority minority" states.

* Young Southerners. In 2006, they preferred Democrats 51% to 48%.

* Class war. 55% of Southerners making under $50,000 a year - 40% of those polled - voted Democrat. The 13% of those polled in a union household favored Democrats 56% to 44%.

* Conflicting faiths. Southern Protestants -- 70% of those polled - voted Republican by a 58% to 41% margin, but all other faith groups favored Democrats. More than one out of four Southern white evangelicals (27%) - perceived as the hardened core of the Republican Party - voted for Democrats in 2006.

* Gender and marriage. Surprisingly, Southern married women were the staunchest GOP supporters in 2006, with only 40% voting for Democrats (41% of married men did). By contrast, 60% of Southern unmarried men, and 63% of unmarried women, favored Democrats in 2006.

Two pictures emerge from this and other data. One is that the Republican Party is increasingly the party not of "the South" in general, as some pundits claim, but older, wealthy and white Southern voters - a base that puts the GOP on the wrong side of all the key demographic trends unfolding in the South.

The second is that the South is a deeply divided region - red, blue and purple - and the question before Democrats isn't whether to cut and run, but how to capitalize on constituencies and trends that clearly work in their favor.

There are many other reasons for the Democratic Party not to write off the South. For any major party to pull up stakes in the fastest-growing region in the country is clearly a bid for political suicide.

It would also put Democrats at odds with their self-image and raison d'etre. For Democrats to turn their backs on a region that half of all African-Americans and a growing number of Latinos and Asian-Americans call home, a place devastated by Hurricane Katrina, plant closings, poverty, and other indignities - in short, for "progressives" to give up on the very place where they could argue they are needed most - would rightfully be viewed as a historic retreat from the party's commitment to justice for all.

But most of all, November 6 proved that the "forget the South" strategy is a colossal mistake - if only because the elections revealed that, if they try, Democrats in the South can win.

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