The politics of the South: Hunting for votes
LAST month Barack Obama, following his approval ratings, headed south. He took a three-day bus tour through Virginia and North Carolina, both of which he had won in 2008, reversing a decades-long erosion of Democratic support in the South. He met soldiers, students and teachers. Virginia’s Democratic politicians, however, stayed away. Tim Kaine, a former governor now running for the Senate, pleaded a full schedule elsewhere. Others were less kind. Phillip Puckett, a Democratic state senator, declared, “I don’t plan to support President Obama for re-election.” Churlish, perhaps, but it worked: on Tuesday Mr Puckett won his own re-election battle.
Elections this week across three southern states produced oddly mixed results. The Republicans’ steady march through the state capitols and governor’s mansions of Dixie continued in Mississippi, where they appear to have captured the state’s House of Representatives from the Democrats for the first time since the aftermath of the civil war. Their candidate for governor, Phil Bryant, trounced Democrat Johnny DuPree (although voters spurned a proposal backed by both men, to confer “personhood” on the unborn). Yet in Kentucky Steve Beshear, the Democratic incumbent, romped home by an equally wide margin. Democrats riding on his coat-tails swept four of the five other statewide races. Virginia, meanwhile, saw only modest gains for Republicans, with control of the state Senate, previously in Democratic hands, hanging on a wafer-thin Republican victory headed for a recount.
All this is of great interest to followers of national politics. Given Mr Obama’s fraying support in much of the Midwest, he will struggle to keep his job next year unless he can win at least one of the three southern states he carried in 2008: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Strategists from both parties are therefore poring over this week’s muddled results in an effort to decipher whether and under what circumstances Democrats can still prevail in the battlegrounds of the South.
There is little question that the Republicans remain the party to beat in most of the region. The drubbing that they delivered to Democrats in state elections in Louisiana last month is typical. Assuming Republicans have indeed taken Virginia’s Senate and Mississippi’s House, they will control every legislature in the South save in the fringe states of Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia.
The Democrats’ decline has been decades in the making. The presidential vote was the first to go, with the five deep southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) plumping for Barry Goldwater in 1964 in spite of the fact that their congressional delegations were Democrats almost to a man. The wave accelerated in the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan captured the white, working-class voters who had kept conservative southern “yellow-dog” Democrats in office. In 2000 Al Gore, despite being a southerner himself, failed to win any southern states. There are now just two Democrats in statewide office in the deep South: Mary Landrieu, a senator from Louisiana, and Jim Hood, the attorney-general of Mississippi.