House District 64 race and "Retrogression"

The few remaining white Democratic state House members in the Pee Dee region can't take comfort in yesterday's Democratic primary outcome in the House District 64 special election, where primary voters nominated a black Democrat who will face a GOP candidate in several weeks.

In the upcoming post-2010 reapportionment, Southern states face considerable pressure to avoid "retrogression", the reduction of the number majority-black election districts via reapportionment. With rural areas losing population and black voters gradually assimilating into majority-white communities, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that the percentage of legislative districts with majority-black populations will roughly match the statewide black population percentage.

Since the 1980s, the number of majority-black legislative districts in South has grown several-fold, which went hand-in-hand with the rapid growth of the number of black legislators in the South over the last three decades. During this time, the GOP scored similar large gains of legislative seats, leaving the number of white Democrats in most Southern legislative chambers at or near single digits, their ranks caught in a crossfire between suburban districts turned Republican and rural majority-black districts taken over by black Democrats.

So how does the House District 64 special election play into this?

It is expected that the rural Lowcountry and Pee Dee regions will lose one or two House districts. This has been part of a consistent pattern where every decennial reapportionment has seen the Pee Dee lose seats for decades, with only a handful of white Democrats remaining: Jim Battle (Marion), Bill Bowers (Hampton), Lester Branham (Florence), Jackie Hayes (Dillon), Patsy Knight (Dorchester), Elizabeth Munnerlyn (Marlboro), Denny Neilson (Darlington) and Harry Ott (Calhoun).

Had Dwight Stewart, the lone white Democratic candidate for the House District 64 seat, won the Democratic nomination, as the lowest-seniority white Democrat, his seat may have been the first to go. With the seat now going to either a black Democrat or a Republican, it's hard to see the seat being eliminated by reapportionment by a GOP leadership caught between the need to protect its majority as well as avoiding retrogression.

Now, someone else will have to lose - but who? Many expect the most likely victims to be Battle or Hayes, one of whom may see their seat shifted towards Myrtle Beach, and Knight, whose seat may be moved into the growing Charleston area suburbs.

The central Pee Dee region has lost at least one House district each decade due to a lackluster economy and continued population shrinkage and it could lose another this time around. If District 64 had elected a white Democrat, it would have been the logical target for elimination, split up to help bring neighboring districts up to population, but since it's not going to do that, another white Democrat in the region may end up on the chopping block - and that list is a very short one.

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