Could the South save the Democrats?

DEBATE: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is in a close race for reelection against Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., but may yet win.
DEBATE: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is in a close race for reelection against Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., but may yet win. AP

Will the South save the Democratic Party?

That’s a question that’s so tinged with irony it’s almost hard to write it without smirking. Because over the last 50 years, but most acutely over the last 10, the South has turned decisively into Republican territory.

One of the most persistent political myths is that the cascade of southern Democratic voters into the GOP happened immediately in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act a year later. True, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond flipped right away, but the tide didn’t break all at once.

Researcher David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has written extensively about the fact that despite a rush to the GOP among southern Democrats in presidential voting, the turnover of state legislatures, and congressional majorities was more gradual, as old Dixie Dems hung onto their seats by carefully fielding a mix of white and newly enfranchised black voters.

With gerrymandering locking in black congressional seats alongside sure-fire Republican ones across the South, a Bositis post-election analysis after the “Republican revolution” of 1994 found that “82 percent of Southern black state representatives and 91 percent of Southern black state senators were still in Democratic-controlled legislatures.”

Leading up to 2010, two-thirds of black state representatives and nearly as many black state senators still served in Democratic majority legislatures. After that midterm, those shares dropped to 38 percent and 46 percent respectively.

As time went on, white voters in the south grew to vote as loyally for Republicans as African-Americans do for Democrats. President Obama’s election in 2008, and the tea party backlash, intensified the trend, so that by 2012, white voters in many southern counties chose Mitt Romney at rates topping 90 percent, similar to black voters’ preference for Obama’s re-election.

So why are Democrats looking to the South for salvation in 2014?

Because in fundamental ways, the old alchemy of southern Democratic success still applies.

Democratic politicians who can maximize black voter turnout, while keeping the small remaining white vote that’s open to their arguments on raising the minimum wage, protecting healthcare gains for the working poor and rural Americans — as well as on issues salient to unmarried women, like access to birth control —can still build a statewide majority.

Kay Hagan in North Carolina, who’s probably running the best Democratic Senate campaign this year, has articulated a strong case against her state’s voter disenfranchisement schemes in a way that connects her to the existing black voter anger over those rule changes, while not tying her to President Obama in a way that might turn off independent voters.

Michelle Nunn will benefit as much from the aggressive push to register and turn out black voters, and the pitched battle between that state’s Republican secretary of state and the New Georgia Project, which claims that some 40,000 voter registration applications are being held up for the purposes of politics, as she will from her family name, which helps her with independents and old-line Democrats.

In the governor’s races, Florida’s Charlie Crist is now diving into Broward County, with its mother lode of black voters and other die-hard Democrats. Florida Democrats have essentially closed the gap with Republicans in early absentee voting, by mining the deep well of minority voters who turned out in 2008 and 2012 but not in 2010, and the nearly 600,000-person growth in the electorate, 71 percent of which has come from Hispanics, African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans.

If those minority voters turn out in better than typical numbers for a midterm, Crist will have a very good night.

Other southern candidates aren’t faring as well.

Senator Mark Pryor is struggling in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton once perfected the white voter-black voter balancing act. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes has spent more time running against President Obama than Mitch McConnell has; calling herself a Clinton Democrat and not admitting to voting for the Democrat currently in the White House. Someone might want to point out that former President Clinton heartily endorsed Obama in 2012, and Hillary worked for him.

Meanwhile in Louisiana, Mary Landrieu’s strong turnout machine in New Orleans may or may not be enough to save her Senate seat in a state that’s gone scarlet, but if any southern politician knows how to work the white-black voter alchemy, it’s the Landrieu family.

Election night will be interesting for any number of reasons; none more than the prospect that the Democrats’ salvation, in the Senate and in the governor’s races, might well be in Dixie.

Joy-Ann Reid is the host of “The Reid Report” on MSNBC.

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