Southern States Looking for a Different Sort of Democrat
The hundred or so Democratic activists gathered in an auditorium at North Carolina Central University on a January weeknight to meet with state party bigwigs have each been given two paper flags–one green, one red. When someone says something they agree with, attendees are supposed to wave green flags; if they disagree, they wave the red. Plenty of the proposals elicit green flags, like withdrawing from Iraq. Then a member of the state party’s executive committee suggests reaching out to NASCAR dads. “We have churches and values,” she says, “and we have to make that clear.” A wave of red flags ripples across the room. Grumbles activist Don Esterling, 62: “We don’t need to be Republican light.”
Or maybe they do. In the American South, the ranks of Democratic senators have shrunk from 20 to four since 1980, and the party’s presidential ticket has lost every state for the second time in a row. “This is the worst it’s been for Democrats here . . . since Reconstruction,” says Emory University Prof. Merle Black. And yet a handful of “red” state governors, including North Carolina’s Mike Easley, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen, and Virginia’s Mark Warner, have proved Democrats can win in the South, partly by irking party activists with NRA endorsements and support for capital punishment. “I’m a former prosecutor, a hunter, love to drive race cars, have very strong religious beliefs,” says Easley. “That’s everything you’d think of as conservative.” But while it’s possible for Easley to distance himself from the national party, it’s a tougher gambit for presidential hopefuls.
Of course, it’s everything you’d think of as a Republican, too. These guys aren’t “Republican light,” they’re Republican mislabeled.
Democrats lost their iron grip on Dixie after spearheading the civil rights bills of the 1960s.
Spearheaded? I don’t think that word means what you think it means. In fact, Southern Democrats bitterly opposed these bills to the point of filibuster. They passed through an alliance of Republicans and northeastern Democrats.
The New South’s economic boom attracted fiscally conservative northerners, while the political realignment of the region’s evangelical Christians hastened the GOP ascendancy. The last few years have seen, for the first time, more southern voters identifying as Republicans than as Democrats or independents. That helps explain why, last fall, five Senate seats vacated by retiring Democrats fell into GOP hands.
This process is now 30-odd years old, though. The South has been voting Republican at the presidential level since the early 1970s, with the exception of native son Jimmy Carter in 1976 and a few states here and there voting for native son Democrats in other elections. It’s true that it’s taken longer at the gubernatorial and congressional levels, although mostly because it takes so long to ween the system of incumbents.