Nowhere to go but up for Southern Democrats

There have been five federal elections — three midterms and two presidential cycles — since the October 2006 publication of my book, "Whistling Past Dixie." In it I argued that, given the Democratic Party's declining southern fortunes, the party should develop a non-southern national electoral strategy.

To put it mildly, the book received a mixed response from Democratic pundits, politicians and party leaders.


David "Mudcat" Saunders, the self-appointed guru of Democratic Bubba-dom, told me to "kiss his Rebel" backside. Former Democratic National Committee chair Donnie Fowler poked me in the chest with his finger at the party's 2007 winter meetings and called me by the term commonly used to describe a more specific anatomical feature of one's derriere.

Privately, however, a few top party officials whose identities I pledged to protect admitted that there wasn't much hope for a Democratic revival in the South. A decade's worth of elections later, how exactly are the Democrats faring in the former Confederacy?


Sorry to report, but the party's situation is more bleak now than it was in before the 2006 election. That doesn't mean the Democrats are doomed nationally. Far from it.

As I detailed in an afterword to the book's paperback edition, in the 2006 midterms the Democrats captured the House, Senate and a majority of both governorships and state legislative chambers nationally on the strength of flipping about 85 percent of new seats at each of those levels (even higher for state legislative seats) outside the 11 former Confederate states.

Sure, 2006 was a national wave election that swept Democrats into power. But shouldn't a national wave be, well, national? It wasn't. A few scattered victories aside, that wave didn't breach the South.

In 2008, the Democrats' southern v. non-southern fortunes split even further. Harry Reid's Senate Democratic caucus grew large enough that he had 50 non-southern senators, enough to form a majority even without the remaining handful of southerners in his coalition.

That same year, Barack Obama joined Bill Clinton as the second Democratic candidate to amass 270 or more non-southern electoral votes. Mr. Obama's 310 non-southern electors, 85 percent of his 365 total, were sufficient to win the White House even if he hadn't carried Florida, North Carolina and Virginia — the three southern states that, not coincidentally, feature the largest shares of non-native southerners. Because he lost Indiana and North Carolina in his 2012 re-election, Mr. Obama's total share of electors dropped four years later to 332, but his share of non-southern electors inched up to 87 percent.

I supply these statistics because non-southern strategy critics grumble that writing off the South requires Democratic presidential candidates to capture a very high a share of the electors in the remaining 39 states to win. But they are doing just that. To borrow political analyst Ron Brownstein's term, the "blue wall" of 18 states plus the District of Columbia carried by every Democratic nominee since 1992 alone account for 242 electoral votes — just 28 shy of the magical 270 threshold. All 242 electors are non-southern.

While the number of southern Democrats as a whole is shrinking, the loss is led by the disappearance of whites from the party. On Capitol Hill, the incoming 114th Congress will have just seven white southern Democrats: three U.S. senators (Virginia's Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, plus Florida's Bill Nelson) and four House members. The result is a record-low number of southern Democrats in Congress — a record-high share of whom are non-white, which merely reinforces to white southerners that the term "minority party" carries with it doubly powerful meaning.

State governors and legislatures?


As a result of the 2014 elections, come January the only southern Democratic governor left will be Virginia's Terry McAuliffe, who is term-limited. Although I classify the South as the 11 former Confederate states, to be fair three border South states — Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia — presently feature Democratic governors.

Heading into the 2006 midterms, Democrats controlled half of the 22 chambers in the 11 bicameral legislatures of the former Confederacy. Today, they control none.

At this point, with Democrats having hit rock bottom in the South and nowhere to go but up, I'm almost persuaded it's time to re-invest there.


Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.