Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Democrats Should Not Write Off the South

Tom Schaller and other pundits have loudly proclaiming that November’s elections prove that he is right that the South is solidly Republican forever and that Democrats should just ignore the South and concentrate on everyplace else in the country. The Institute for Southern Studies, the only progressive think-tank that focuses on the South, has a new report with a different analysis.

Out of 19 key House races in the South, Democrats won 8 immediately (in Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas), narrowly missed one (Virginia’s 8th district), may still pick up 2 “too close to call” recounts (Georgia’s 12th and North Carolina’s 8th) and narrowly missed in Florida’s 13th (Katherine Harris’ vacated seat), possibly due to “undervotes” from a paperless voting machine. That’s hardly a South that is uncompetitive. It shows a 47% victory and competitiveness in 63% of races in a South that people want to write off for Democrats forever instead of sticking with Howard Dean’s wise 50 state strategy.

The picture continues: Only 6 Senate seats were up this time in the South: 4 were fairly uncompetitive and these split evenly (West VA and Florida for the Democrats; Mississippi and Texas for the GOP)–as did the two highly competive races, with Jim Webb’s victory in Virginia deciding senate control for the Dems. Despite racial smear campaigns and a somewhat checkered family history, Harold Ford of Tennessee narrowly missed becoming the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction–and his opponent, Bob Corker, spent $3 million more, including $1.35 million of his own money dumped just days before the election. Again, Democrats gained 26 seats in state legislatures in the South while the GOP picked up only 20.

Other indications from exit polls reveal that the South is far more divided politically than people like Schaller believe and the demographic trends favor the Democrats more than Republicans:

  • Racial/ethnic divide: 62% of Southern whites voted Republican, but 87% of African-Americans, 57% of Latinos (the percentage is higher if one exempts the deeply Republican Cuban-exile population of South Florida), and 52% of “all others” voted Democrat. Now, considering that the 4 states nationally with the fastest growing Latino populations in the U.S. are all in the South and that Georgia and Mississippi are on the verge of joining Texas as “majority minority” states, this is bad news for the GOP if (a) the Democrats actually respond strongly to minority concerns (less talk, more action), (b) the Democrats field strong candidates in Southern races and enforce voting rights protections, and (c) the GOP continues to fail in its efforts to make inroads in African-American and Latino populations/
  • Generation gap: Although young people of voting age still do not vote in the numbers of other age groups, they are increasing somewhat. And, in 2006, young Southerners preferred Democrats to Republicans 51% to 48%.
  • Class war: 55% of Southerners making less than $50,000 per year voted Democrat. Of the 13% of those polled who lived in a union household, 56% favored Democrats. The necessity of the Democratic Party renewing and strengthening its New Deal/Great Society commitments to Labor and to economic justice for the poor and working classes could not be clearer. (It’s corporate clone DLC Dems who get nowhere in the South. Economic populism, especially when it wears as Southern accent like John Edwards’, gains a real real hearing in Dixie.) A movement against anti-union laws and working to increase unionization in the South would work to spread justice and would increase electoral opportunities for Democrats in the South.
  • Religious divide: The white evangelical vote is still mostly Republican even though Democrats made gains here in 2006. 58% of Southern Protestants voted Republican, but all other faith groups favored Democrats–which is significant given the fast growth of Catholicism in the South.
  • Gender/Marriage: Southern married women were the staunchest GOP supporters–only 40% voted Democratic. (This shows the heavy emotional investment that Southern married women have in the patriarchal narrative promoted by the GOP-loving Religious Right. This colonized mentality has them vote against their own best interests.) Even Southern married men did slightly better for Democrats (41%). By contrast, 60% of Southern unmarried men and 63% of Southern unmarried women voted Democrat.

So, the composite picture of the GOP voter in Dixie is married, older, wealthy, and white, which puts the GOP on the wrong side of every significant demographic trend in the South (as nationwide). The conclusion seems obvious: Democrats should not “write off” the South (which is unjust–it’s not just about winning, but creating good lives for all citizens!) even if gains will be slower coming than elsewhere. They should continue for a 50 state strategy, continue to try to recruit good candidates and run populist campaigns that speak to issues of racial justice (without sounding like whites will be excluded) and economic justice–kitchen table issues. They should recruit the young, learn Spanish, strengthen Labor, and, while vigorously defending church-state separation, paint moral visions that resonate with persons of faith.

Tom Schaller to the contrary, a progressive South is possible in the not-too-distant future.


December 13, 2006 - Posted by | elections, politics


  1. I know both of the two Georgia Dems. Barrow was on the Athens City Council while I was at UGA and Jim Marshall (though a bit conservative) represented my hometown district growing up (Vidalia to Macon)

    Dems will really have an uphill battle in GA winning a Senate seat or the Governors mansion back.

    The problem is candidate recruitment. I like Denise Majette (remember the black lady who beat McKinney the first go around?). But candidates like Majette can’t win on the statewide level. Democrats in the South must choose wisely. Though he lost, Harold Ford was an amazing candidate. In North Carolina, Heath Shuler is another example. Dems must recruit candidates who are extremely popular in their districts – not just the average rich businessman. Folks like Jim Marshall (GA) and my current Congressman, Chet Edwards (TX), win time and time again (though often close) because White Republicans are willing to support a hometown boy who they can trust.

    Waco is the land of the Republicans, but they keep on reelecting Chet because he gives so much back to the community. The first time our grandparents, friends, and other relatives came to visit us in Waco – we would take them on a tour of the town. We’d visit Dr. Pepper Museum, Baylor campus, David Koresh’s compound, and of course the Bush Ranch at Crawford. When with our anti-Bush friends, we’d stop by the Peace House (my sister got her picture taken with Cindy Sheehan). Anyways, the gift shops in Waco give out Chet Edwards bumper stickers. So, even some of Bush’s strongest supporters are willing to support candidates like Chet Edwards – candidates that aren’t fake and seem committed to the district regardless of party affiliation.

    Comment by Aaron | December 14, 2006

  2. Michael: You give great advice for Democrats to rise again in the South. Hope the Republicans are reading your blog. ūüôā SelahV

    Comment by SelahVhttp://whatmatters2eternity.blogspot.com | December 15, 2006

  3. I hope they do, too, Selah. Then they can become progressive Republicans (there used to be such) or even Democrats!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 15, 2006

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