Monday, July 20, 2020

The South Is Still Very Republican—But Southern Democrats Aren't "Southern Democrats" Anymore

In an era of historically stable electoral maps, any hint of novelty is likely to attract a much greater degree of attention than its true importance would warrant. And so recent signs of an electoral trend favoring Democratic candidates in certain corners of the South have been repeatedly touted as earth-shaking developments; Friday's Wall Street Journal even refers to a potential "realignment" in the region. If the news media's prototypical voter of interest after the 2016 election was the (pro-Trump) working-class white resident of a small midwestern town, in 2020 the new objects of fascination are the (anti-Trump) well-educated professionals and voters of color populating the suburbs of large southern cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Houston.

But the South as a whole is still very Republican—in fact, it remains the main source of popular support for the national Republican Party. Among the 14 southern states (defined here as the 11 members of the former Confederacy plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma), Democrats have built an overall advantage in just one (Virginia), and in only Florida and North Carolina are the two parties closely matched at the state level. Across the rest of the region, Republicans control all 22 state legislative chambers, 9 of 11 governorships (having lost only Kentucky and Louisiana by narrow margins in off-year elections to replace unpopular Republican incumbents), 20 of 22 U.S. Senate seats (all but those held by Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, the last an accidental special election winner who is unlikely to retain his seat this fall), nearly every other statewide office, and 74 of 101 U.S. House seats.

The Democratic Party hit a historic low point in the South during the 2014–2016 period and has made a bit of a comeback since then, as it has elsewhere in the country. But this partisan rebound has so far been mostly restricted to a few major metropolitan areas, flipping some congressional and state legislative seats to Democratic challengers without yet dismantling the power of a formerly dominant state Republican Party. Yes, Beto O'Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia represented tantalizing near-miss candidacies for Democrats in 2018, though both also benefited from flawed opponents and unusually favorable national partisan conditions—the same electoral assets that have so far kept Joe Biden within reach of carrying both states this year. But if national polls start to tighten before November, the Biden campaign will probably retreat to defend pivotal states elsewhere, abandoning the ambitious but unnecessary goal of making additional inroads in the South.

In general, the change so far in the southern Democratic Party's electoral strength has received too much attention and the change in its internal complexion has received too little. Old-style southern Democrats—the kind with rural constituencies, good-ol'-boy personas, and philosophical discomfort with the northern wing of the party on issues from abortion and gun control to environmental regulation and energy policy—are nearly extinct in elective office; Manchin, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, and one or two House members are just about the last of this breed above the local level. The newer generations of southern Democratic politicians are much more likely to be drawl-less metropolitans, often first- or second-generation transplants from outside the region. Many of them are members of racial minority groups, even in majority-white constituencies. And they are mostly not ideological misfits within the national Democratic Party, instead sitting squarely inside the prevailing Obama-Biden pragmatic liberal mainstream on economic and social issues alike.

When Democrats gained a majority in both houses of the Virginia legislature last November, achieving unified control of state government for the first time in decades, they immediately demonstrated how much the state party had evolved since the days when it was led by conservative-leaning figures like Harry Byrd and Howard "Judge" Smith. The burst of legislative activity that ensued not only raised the state minimum wage and imposed regulations on energy producers; it also loosened restrictions on abortion, banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, closed the "gun show loophole" by requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, decriminalized marijuana possession, and allowed local governments to remove Confederate monuments. This is the contemporary policy agenda of regular national Democrats, making few concessions to the distinctive cultural commitments of traditional southern politics, and any future Democratic majority in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, or Georgia is more likely to follow Virginia's lead than to attempt to revive the old style of governing.

Even if they benefit from another "blue wave" this year, Democrats are still a long way away from true competitiveness in most of the South. But the evolution of its main sources of electoral support in the region is important for the behavior of the party at the national level. Democrats elected from southern congressional seats are less likely to be as serious an impediment to the legislative agenda of the next Democratic president as they were to that of Obama or Bill Clinton, in part because the constituencies that they represent are less self-consciously "southern," less alienated from national left-of-center politics, and moving toward, rather than away from, the Democratic Party over time. Republicans are still very much the party of the South, but Democrats are hoping to eventually become the party of the New South.