Democrats Face a Reckoning in Deep South Legislatures

Bobby Shows, of Ellisville, Mississippi, has represented a rural district in the state House of Representatives for nearly 20 years. But about a year ago, he took a step that used to be rare — and even risky — for any white Democratic lawmaker in the South. He changed parties and joined the Republicans. 

"My granddaddy, if he were still living, he would turn over in his grave if he knew I was a Republican, because he served in the legislature during the Depression as a Democrat … when they didn't have nothing but Democrats," Shows says. "But I'll tell you something else, he wouldn't be a Democrat today with the way the Democrat Party is."

That sentiment is common throughout the South. Shows jumped ship following the 2010 elections that all but eliminated white Southern Democrats from state legislative seats in some places. Mississippi Democrats were spared, because the legislature's seats were not on the ballot. But with legislative elections now a month away, Republicans have a chance to extend their newfound power this year not only in Mississippi but also Virginia. North Carolina could be next. Republicans who took over both chambers of the General Assembly last year hope to complete their sweep in 2012 by taking the governor's mansion.

Mississippi Democrats know the trend all too well. The state Senate first flipped to Republican control a decade ago, and it remains in GOP hands today. One of the country's foremost Republican strategists, Haley Barbour, sits in the governor's mansion. During Barbour's eight years in office, he has helped the GOP flourish. Meanwhile, a 2004 law limiting the size of jury awards has deprived Democrats of the donations from trial lawyers that once fueled the party operation. Democrats have feuded internally and struggled to give voters a clear message of what their party stood for.

"The contrast is amazing," says Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University. "You've got a fragmented, disassembled, back-biting, fighting Democratic Party … versus a very well-organized, well-funded, well-directed Republican Party."

This fall, the Mississippi Democratic Party must defend its last power center in Jackson — the state House of Representatives — in the November elections. If Republicans prevail, it would mark a milestone in a process two generations in the making: the takeover of Southern statehouses by a party once anathema to white Southerners.

A new South

"Especially in the Deep South right now, the Democrats are in the worst position they've been in years," says Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

Exit polls show that the number of white Democrats in the South is dwindling, and fast. Across the South, it is hard to find a statewide officeholder who is a Democrat. Republicans hold all of the marquee positions in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas. In Mississippi and Tennessee, only the attorneys general are Democrats. And Republicans control more legislative chambers in the South than ever before.

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It is worth noting, though, how long it has taken the Republican Party to assert control at the state level. Southern states have favored Republican presidential candidates since Richard Nixon, except when one of their own governors — Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — was running as a Democrat. Even Clinton narrowly lost a majority of the 14 Southern states during his White House bids.

The reason Democrats in these states have been able to hold so many seats in legislatures all these years is their success at avoiding the unpopularity of national Democrats, who have proved increasingly unacceptable to Southern conservatives, first because of their support for civil rights laws and, then, for their more liberal policies on issues across the board.

"The choice for a voter in a presidential contest is usually between a liberal Northern Democrat and a more conservative Republican," Black explains. "In state politics, obviously, there's no liberal Northerners running. So you have a more moderate conservative Democrat, perhaps, up against a Republican." In past years, that was a fight southern Democrats could win.

But as Southern voters punched the ticket for Republican presidential nominees more often, the stigma associated with the Republican Party wore off. When Ronald Reagan became president, only 40 percent of white Southerners who said they were conservative were Republicans. By the end of Reagan's presidency, 60 percent of them identified with the Grand Old Party. "As the older white Democrats die off," says Black, "then they are replaced by younger whites who have much less identification or association with the Democratic Party than their parents or certainly their grandparents."

Of course, the influx of Northerners — Yankees with no deep-seated distrust of the Republican Party — during the South's economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s helped Republicans boost their numbers, as did the rise of religious conservatives who previously had been politically inactive, adds Ferrel Guillory of the University of North Carolina.

Those trends, in turn, influence the thinking of people who consider running for office. White candidates see an easier path to election as Republicans. And even if the candidates think they could win a lesser office as a Democrat, doing so does not make sense if they want to continue to climb the ladder of elected positions. It is now easier to advance as a Republican, something that was not true just a decade ago.

Black and white partisanship

For decades, the Democratic Party in the South was an uneasy coalition between blacks and rural whites. Now that rural whites are abandoning the Democrats, blacks make up a greater percentage of the party.

On the one hand, blacks have made notable strides in the South in recent years. In the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams became the first African American to lead the Democratic caucus. In Mississippi, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree became the first major party nominee for governor to be black. On the other hand, those strides are made possible, in part, by a narrowing power base. "That's the South," says UNC's Guillory. "Black folks can win in certain places, but it's hard for them to win statewide."

The defection of so many white Democrats has also expanded the philosophical gap between the parties. The Democrats that remain tend to be from urban areas and the more liberal wing of their party, moving its center of gravity to the left. Meanwhile, the influx of rural conservatives to the Republican Party pushes the GOP further to the right on many issues than the original suburban Republican base had been.

When Shows, the Mississippi legislator, changed parties, he caused a stir by claiming a Democratic leader told him there was no room in the Democratic Party for white conservatives, a charge Democrats denied. Last week, Shows told Stateline the division was philosophical. "It's basically conservatives versus liberal, when you get right down to it," he says. "Most of your blacks are very liberal. Most of your whites are conservative."

The widening gap, though, makes it harder for Democrats to win statewide races. There is an old adage in Mississippi that a statewide Democratic candidate, especially for governor, starts with 40 percent of the vote, because of the reliable black vote. The trouble is finding enough support beyond that to win statewide. "It is the ability to get that 5 or 10 percent that is getting tougher and tougher," says Mississippi State's Wiseman. "If the Democrats don't wake up and get their organization in shape and the fund raising in shape, getting that other 10 percent is going to be impossible."

From North Carolina, though, Guillory cautions that the South is not a monolithic entity. He sees a big difference between states in the Deep South and those more metropolitan states on the East Coast, like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. "It's not all one story right now in the South. The South ain't marching to the same tune of 'Dixie,'" he says.

"It's super easy to say, 'Yep, the South is red and it'll be red forever and ever. Amen.' Things are just too dynamic for that to be an absolute," Guillory adds. "If you're a Democrat sitting in Mississippi or in Alabama, it's hard to have hope. But if you're sitting in North Carolina and Virginia, you're saying, 'We're going to fight!'"

Mississippi turning

Democrats sitting in Mississippi are not waving a white flag yet. Most expect that they will hold on to a majority in the state House in the upcoming elections, albeit with a smaller margin than their current eight-seat advantage. Some even hope they can retake the Senate, where Republicans have a slim majority. But it is still clearly a party groping for answers.

George Flaggs, a black Democrat from Vicksburg who now sits across the aisle from Shows in the Mississippi House, says his party is losing ground because of Republican efforts to tie Democrats to national figures, like Barack Obama or former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Quite frankly, I think the Democratic Party has done a bad job of separating the state agenda from the national agenda. We got painted with a broad brush and, as a result, we lost some ground," he says. "But I think we're catching up now."

"I think Mississippi has more potential than any of the other Southern states to maintain a viable Democratic Party," argues Wiseman from Mississippi State. "The problem is they don't have one now."

For his part, Shows says his transition from Democrat to Republican has been a smooth one. "I was fairly surprised. I've had no negative feedback. Everything has been very, very positive," he says.  "I've had some people — not one, but several — tell me they could vote for me now and wouldn't have to hold their nose like they did when I was a Democrat."