In the office of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, between memorabilia devoted to political career, his native Memphis and favorite musical artists like Big Star and Warren Zevon, there’s is a picture of all of his Democratic colleagues who lost in the Republican wave of 2010.
In an interview there in November, Cohen got up from his chair and pointed to the picture, “There are the boys who lost in 2010. I’ve kept them up here. A lot of good people lost and shouldn’t be forgotten.” Like Cohen, many of these casualties were white Democrats from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Now, the Memphis congressman is one of only a handful of white Southerners in his caucus and the once Solid South is deep red. But is it gone for good from the Democratic column?
Even as recently 2006, when Cohen was first elected, a majority of congressmen in the delegations from states like Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas were Democratic. Now, with Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu poised to lose her runoff on Saturday, Republicans are clearly a majority party in Dixie. Democrats cling to only to handful of redoubts, often districts gerrymandered by Republican legislatures to be majority black. This is the culmination of what Cohen described with relish, using a name coined by a GOP operative, as “Operation Ratfuck,” a concerted Republican effort to divide legislative districts in the South along racial lines, leaving Democrats in the minority and represented almost exclusively by blacks. The result was “a perfectly executed coup for the GOP” according to Tom Schaller, a professor of political science at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Whistling Past Dixie, and one that has left Republicans in control of every state legislature and congressional delegation in the former Confederacy. And it seems to have worked.
Cohen referenced the famous statement of Lyndon Johnson that, by signing the Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party was losing the South for a generation. “It’s come to pass and really a lot of white Southerners vote on gays and guns and God and we’re not going to ever be too good on gays and guns and God.” The Tennessee congressman thought his party would no longer to be able to appeal to those evangelicals and Baptists who believe in “keeping prayer in school and have the Ten Commandments posted or tattooed on your tongue or your wrist… It’s just not party of the Democratic agenda, which is tolerance and personal choice.”
The one hope that Cohen sees for his party is populism. He noted that while Elizabeth Warren was good on that issue, it was unclear if she’d be “a champion accepted in the South.” After all, although she was born in Oklahoma and spent part of her life in Houston—which Cohen called “the Republic of Texas”—she’s popularly viewed as a Bostonian. But he was pessimistic about the prospect of this working, “for years and years and years Southerners haven’t really understood that their economic interests lie with Democrats. I’ve seen it all my life in Memphis or wherever, they divert the attention away and get it on the social issues and basically guns, and gays and God.”
This meant that Cohen was one of a handful of white Democrats left in Congress from the South. The lifelong Memphis resident discounted Gerry Connolly from Northern Virginia, which wasn’t Southern, and dismissed Ted Deutsch from South Florida as coming from the Hamptons of the South. Lloyd Doggett from Texas was from Texas, which was its own country. Instead there were just three left besides Cohen: David Price from North Carolina, John Yarmuth from Louisville, Kentucky, and Jim Cooper from Nashville. Even in this group, Cohen didn’t quite fit. He represents a majority black district in Memphis, where he had the highest approval rating of any politician and was far to the left of traditional yellow dog Democrats. The progressive Cohen even sarcastically joked that another congressman was “a communist just like me.”
There was some small sliver of hope that Democrats could regain some lost ground in 2016 with Hillary Clinton on the ballot. Cohen noted that because “Bill Clinton is still absolutely totally loved” in Arkansas, there was a chance that the former secretary of state could win there. Plus, he noted “Hillary will get all the women out to vote.” But, other than that, he thought her map simply included the two Southern states that voted for Obama in 2008, North Carolina and Virginia.
It wasn’t necessarily that Cohen wrote off the rest of the South. He had a key indicator for where Democrats might have a chance—the presence of an NHL team. ”Wherever there’s a hockey team, there may be a chance.” Hockey was a sign of Northerners immigrating to the South. In particular, he noted in North Carolina, where the universities and tech companies of the Research Triangle have had a huge impact. “I couldn’t believe you’d have hockey in Raleigh.” He still held out hope in Georgia because changing demographics, particularly the influx of Latinos. Plus, he thought that throughout the region that marijuana legalization could have some appeal from white voters afraid of “getting busted” who want to let their “freak fly.” But otherwise he was far more pessimistic about the rest of the Deep South. After all, as the Tennessee congressman pointed out, “not much chance in Mississippi and Alabama cause there’s no hockey.”
Cohen was still pessimistic overall. Because of the extreme gerrymandering, which had packed minority voters into a handful of districts—a tactic that he has introduced legislation to stop—Cohen thought Democrats had little chance of picking up additional House seats. “I don’t see any House seats coming back at all. It’s weird” he said while shaking his head. In the meantime, Cohen could recite the names of the colleagues lost like a rabbi reading the names of the deceased up for Yahrzeit. Lincoln Davis and John Barrow and Larry Kissell and Travis Childers and on and on it went. All Cohen needed to do was add “of blessed memory” after each political casualty was mentioned.