It looks like Hell: the end of Southern Democrats?


While the national picture paints a picture of a close contest for power in Washington in both the Presidential and Senate races (few observers expect the GOP to lose the House), the Republican dominance of the South is expected to continue - and with that, prospects for the survival of the few remaining Southern Democrats in Congress are looking bleak.

Two years ago, the depth of the GOP's sweep of the South was amazing. Out of dozens of Senate and statewide office contests across the South, Democrats prevailed in just one: the Arkansas Governor's race. Not only that, Republicans now control of all but two legislative chambers in the South (the House and Senate in Arkansas, where a switch of just eight seats would put those in their hands as well), a big change in a region where Republicans took control of their first legislative chamber in the 1994 elections.

Now the Washington Post predicts this year will see the virtual end of the white Southern Democratic members of Congress. There's a lot of reasons to suggest they may be right.

Blue Dog-held districts pre-2010
elections in blue
In 2010, a number of major Congressional upsets took place in the South, where House Democrats with high seniority, including three Chairs and 14-term member, were among those toppled. These upsets had much to do with the drastic downsizing of the Democratic Blue Dog caucus, a group of self-professed moderates, from 54 to 26 members after the 2010 elections. Several current members are retiring while several others are expected to have tough re-election battles.

Blue Dog-held districts post-2010
elections in blue
Among those Democrats who are bailing this year in the South are Heath Shuler and Brad Miller from North Carolina, Mike Ross from Arkansas and Dan Boren from Oklahoma - with Republicans favored to carry all of these districts. Miller, who had overseen the drawing of North Carolina's 13th District ten years ago, which he ran for and won when it was assigned to the state after the 2000 census, said his district, redrawn by Republican legislators “looks like hell.”

Political odds-makers see the last three in Deep South states as facing long odds for re-election: Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre from North Carolina and John Barrow from Georgia.

Clinton vs Obama comparison map:
Obama over Clinton in Blue,
Clinton over Obama in Red
Much of the recent changes have come in the region known as the "Jacksonian belt" - a strip of inland southern counties and cities that runs from Arkansas to West Virginia, where Democrats were generally most conservative than elsewhere, sometimes splitting their tickets in national or statewide contests. In this region, Bill Clinton won bigger percentages of the vote in his 1992 election than Barack Obama did in 2008. The color-coded map on the right shows this region as the brightest red of any in the nation.

This Jacksonian belt not only played a key role in a number of Congressional upsets, but also key battles for control of legislatures across the South were fought here as well, as the GOP won control of several legislative chambers in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia since 2008 as many of those voters who identified themselves as conservative Democrats shifted their allegiances to the GOP from top to bottom on their ballots.

Much of the current shift was driven by two rounds of redistricting after the 1990 and 2010 censuses.

The first major wave of change in the South came in the early 1990s when coalitions of Republican and black Democratic legislators across the South came together to pass maps over the objections of white Democratic legislators, resulting in an increase of both Republicans and black Democrats in Southern legislatures and Congressional delegations - at the expense of white Democrats who were once the largest bloc of legislators and Congressmen from the region.

The second wave, following the 2010 elections, was the first time where the GOP held full control over redistricting in every Southern state except Arkansas., using the 2010 round of redistricting to shore up districts flipped in the 2010 election cycle and influence the outcome of upcoming Congressional contests by:

  • Increasing the number of new seats that favor Republicans - GOP favored to gain new seats which were awarded to Georgia and South Carolina, while getting even splits of the number of new seats assigned to both Florida and Texas.
  • Targeting Democratic incumbents - Democratic-held seats in North Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma.

With the GOP in firm control of much of the Jacksonian belt, and with that, a much better recruiting pool for Congressional races and control of redistricting, it's likely that the number of white Democrats hailing from the South won't rebound anytime soon. With Democrats struggling for the twenty-five seat pick-up needed to regain control of the House, being shut out of a region which once elected over a dozen white Democrats isn't going to help their prospects.

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