After the 2008 elections, the pundits were certain: the GOP was in danger of being a rump party, one that only had power and influence in the South and a few older, whiter precincts in the Plains and mountain states.
The cry was heard again in 2012, louder. But as 2014 approaches, a quirk of the calendar has meant that Democrats, forced to defend the majority in the U.S. Senate they have consolidated over the last several election cycles, will need to hold on to a couple of key seats in Dixie, a land where Democrats were supposed to be banished. If they hope to have any kind of cushion against losses elsewhere, Democrats may even need to steal a couple of seats now held by Republicans in the region.
And they just might do it.
“The Democratic Party is a lot stronger in the South than many people believe,” said Ronnie Musgrove, governor of Mississippi from 2000 to 2004. “If Democrats start focusing on the South the way they have focused nationally, then you will start to see some big gains here.”
Democrats face the challenge of stealing a march in the South because they are overextended, having won seats in states where they shouldn’t dating back to 2006. Those victories came as a result of wave elections, the popularity of Barack Obama in presidential years, and lousy Republican candidates —remember Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, or any of the other half-dozen or so Republicans beloved by primary voters but too conservative for the general electorate?
And so, as 2014 approaches, Democrats hold a five-seat majority in the upper chamber but must defend seats left open by the retirement of longtime lawmakers in South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana. In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich is up for reelection after winning in 2008 by fewer than 4,000 votes against an incumbent embroiled in a federal corruption trial.
In none of those states did Obama come within 10 points of Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, even as the president won easily in the rest of the country. Political analysts on both sides of the aisle say the Democrats could easily lose all four of those races. Throw in another upset in any of the other 21 seats Democrats must defend—in Iowa or Michigan, for example, where longtime incumbents are retiring—and the chamber will be tied, with two more years of even worse gridlock.
To avoid that fate, Democratic incumbents need to hold on in Arkansas, where Obama lost by 24 points; Louisiana, where he lost by 17 points; North Carolina, where he lost by two points; and Virginia, where he won by three. And if they hope to gain a cushion against losses elsewhere, their best chances to flip Republican seats are in Georgia, which Obama lost by eight points, and Kentucky, which he lost by 23 points.
Democrats’ chances of extending their reach into the South rely largely on a Republican Party, or a conservative movement, that has in many respects become a victim of its own success. With all but the most ideological conservative capable of winning a primary in the region, Democrats are nominating moderates who distance themselves from the national party on social issues.
“They have ceded so much real estate to Democrats,” said Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They have been catering to these reckless elements in the Tea Party and hurting themselves in a general election.”
In North Carolina, the Republican side now has a three-way primary for the right to battle first-term Democrat Kay Hagan. The race has already turned ugly, with the speaker of the state legislature facing off against a Tea Party activist on the one hand and a leader of the state Baptist convention on the other. In Georgia, two arch-conservative congressmen—one of whom called evolution a lie, the other of whom partly endorsed Akin’s views on rape—are vying in a crowded primary for the chance to face Democrat Michelle Nunn for an open seat. In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a spirited challenge on his right, and in Louisiana, what should be a decent pickup opportunity for Republicans has been made more difficult as Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican member of the House of Representatives, has watched as national Tea Party groups have rallied behind his opponent, an underfunded Air Force colonel.
And even when a non-ideologue emerges on the GOP side, he or she often does so bloodied from the primary. Democrats, meanwhile, have found a knack for nominating seemingly the only person in the state who can win. These are often people with long experience locally and with family names that have been in politics for generations. Nunn in Georgia is one: her father, Sam Nunn, spent 25 years in the U.S. Senate representing the state. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes’s father, Jerry, is a longtime state lawmaker and a former head of the Kentucky Democratic Party. Incumbents, meanwhile, such as Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, also hail from families with long political lineage and have made a habit of carefully distancing themselves from the national party.
For them, “It becomes a politics of personality,” said Angie Maxwell, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. “They rely on character and narrative, and they don’t have to take sides on policy issues.”
Democrats also are working to build an organization. In August, Gov. Musgrove announced the formation of the Southern Progress Fund, which is dedicated to helping down-ballot Democrats in particular win races in the South. That same month, 10 state parties in the region banded together under the rubric The Committee of the South to share knowledge and expertise. South Forward, a PAC founded by Don Fowler, a South Carolinian and former Democratic National Committee chairman, is helping to raise money. In October, National Journal reported that Southern Democrats were outraising their opponents in nearly every competitive election in the South.
“I think that by and large people are looking at the state of the economy, they are looking at their standard of living continuing to be pinched, and they are looking for a progressive leader who can improve the schools, improve job opportunities,” said Musgrove. “Even in the South, people are looking for ideas that work and not rhetoric.”
Democrats in the South, however, lag behind their party nationwide in the sophisticated get-out-the-vote machinery that is especially important in down-ballot races. Without competitive presidential elections in the region, they haven’t experienced the technical campaign wizardry the Obama campaign has developed over the last several election cycles to micro-target would-be voters.
“Ohio, Pennsylvania, they got all the latest whiz-bang,” said Scott Arceneaux, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and a one of the leaders of The Committee of the South. “Now we have gotten pretty good at it, and it is getting more economical all the time, and it’s time we bring that to Georgia and Louisiana.”
To win, Democrats in the region need to bank on a huge turnout from Hispanic, Asian, and especially African-American voters, and then try to grab a thin slice of moderate white voters to push past 50 percent.
“The sliver of swing votes in the South is small,” said Arceneaux. “We get that. The white moderate swing voter is a small slice of the electorate, and homegrown, moderate Democrats who can reach out to that sliver of the electorate that is persuadable and bring it home will do well.”
And although the demographic advantage does not favor them yet, Democrats in the South say it soon will, with Virginia already trending strongly blue—the GOP does not have a viable Senate candidate yet—and Georgia and North Carolina as the next “bright shiny objects,” as Arceneaux put it.
Jaime Harrison, the leader of the South Carolina Democrats, told of a recent event he attended where one of his Republican counterparts made an appeal to minority voters by bringing up Abraham Lincoln.
“If you have to go back to 1860 to talk to constituent groups, you have a problem,” Harrison said. “We are reaching out to young people, to our base, to new constituencies.”
Part of the reason Democrats have struggled in recent years, according to Maxwell, is because they held the region for so long. A lack of competitive elections meant that state parties atrophied. Places where Democrats are doing well now—such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia—are the states where the Republicans first started ending the century-long stranglehold on the region. Democrats there figured out a while ago that they would need to scrap to win.
Polls of the region, she said, show it is not the conservative bastion that many assume. Yes, nearly 38 percent of self-identified Republicans say they are biblical literalists, but taken as a whole to include all political parties and all races, the South is not as socially conservative as the GOP would have the electorate believe.
“There is a gap between the South and the rest of the country [in terms of social views], but it is not a big gap. It is smaller than the gap between women and men.”
Republicans, naturally, disagree. The demographic wave may catch up to them, but it hasn’t yet, they say, and the Tea Party, as a movement, is losing its ability to knock off establishment contenders.
“In 2010 the Tea Party was a real movement,” said Matt Towery, a former aide to Newt Gingrich in Georgia. “In 2012 it was a movement that couldn’t move enough votes. By 2014 it will just be a state of mind. If the Democrats have a hope in some of these states, it is merely by holding on by the seat of their pants and hoping that the country has moved on from the Obamacare rollout.”
When asked if a candidate like Nunn could win in Georgia, especially with a divisive GOP primary, David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University and the veteran of several Republican campaigns in South Carolina, said, “You need to get out more.
“The Democratic Party is just about defunct in the South,” he said. “The South just keeps getting more and more red. Basically, the Democratic Party is like the mansions in Scarlett O’Hara. It is just gone.”