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Requiem For The Southern Democrat…Or Is It?

On December 6, Louisiana voters showed Sen. Mary Landrieu the exit by a 12-point margin. Cortney has been covering this race extensively–and noted how the use of taxpayers’ money to subsidize traveling expenses, not owning a home in Louisiana, and calling voters in her state racist and sexist probably played in her defeat by Rep. Bill Cassidy.


So, how significant is her defeat? Well, for starters, a Republican will occupy her seat for the first time in 132 years–and her defeat only leaves two statewide offices in Democratic hands.

Landrieu gave her farewell address on Dec. 11, saying she will devote her time to addressing children’s issues, the environment, and coastal restoration in her home state. She also said it was “highly, highly unlikely” that she’ll ever run for elected office again.

That’s it. The Republicans have virtually wiped out Democrats in the South–and pretty much confined them to the coasts and their urban strongholds. Yet, this isn’t permanent; nothing ever is in our system of government. So, before we break out the champagne to celebrate the “extinction” of southern Democrats, Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende says this demographic shift wasn’t inevitable–and that Democrats could claw their way back in the South (via RCP) [emphasis mine]:

The problem Southern Democrats had is that many of their elected officials adopted more liberal voting records over the past decade, giving up their unique, centrist brands. The Almanac of American Politics collects 12 key votes for each Congress. If we go back to the edition covering 2001-02, we can see what Southern Democrats’ voting patterns used to look like. A Northern liberal like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts aligned with a conservative like Jon Kyl of Arizona on just one of these 12 votes. Mary Landrieu, however, voted with Kyl on five, while John Breaux of Louisiana voted with him on eight. Perhaps more importantly, the votes that these Democrats cast with Kyl tended to be on the most crucial issues: the Bush tax cuts, ANWR drilling, military-force authorizations, and barring cooperation with the international court, for example. The differences tended to come on issues where the Democratic position was broadly popular or of low salience: The Patient’s Bill of Rights, funding hate crime prosecutions, and allowing homeland security personnel to unionize.

Fast-forward to 2009-2010. Mary Landrieu voted with Jon Kyl on only two of the key votes, while Pryor voted with him on four. Hagan voted with Kyl on three. Moreover, these votes weren’t on “big-ticket” items: measures such as a repeal of D.C. gun laws and stopping EPA climate regulations weren’t salient enough to overcome votes for the stimulus, confirming Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, passing the health care bill and financial regulation reform.

What had kept Southern Democrats in the game for so long was that, on popular, major items, they tended to vote like Republicans. This changed over the past decade, especially 2009-10, when national Democrats needed their votes to move anything tied to the Democratic president’s agenda. Southern Democrats went into their 2002 and 2008 elections being able to point to important, defining issues where they’d broken with their national party. In 2010, 2012 and 2014, they couldn’t really do the same. It’s a combination of these factors, really, that led to the wipeout.

The good news for Southern Democrats is that, because this didn’t just sort of happen, it really is reversible. There are no permanent majorities in politics. An unpopular Republican president would move the needle. A Democratic fundraising base that chose not to go nuclear on a Democratic candidate who opposed Obamacare or the stimulus would have done it. A more culturally “red” Democratic nominee would help. The voters who elected Phil Bredesen governor of Tennessee by 40 points are largely still around, as are the people who elected Mike Beebe governor of Arkansas by 30 points in 2010 and 14 points in 2006. The same goes for the folks who sent Landrieu and Hagan back to the Senate in 2008, or Blanche Lincoln in 2004. The people who elected a swath of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in 2006 and 2008 are still there. The party just has to try to appeal to them, or at least give more latitude to its candidates to appeal to them, as Rahm Emanuel did in 2006.

The bad news for Southern Democrats is that Democrats aren’t likely to do this anytime soon, and if they did, they’d pay a price.


Right now, Democrats are bleeding votes in these areas, especially within white working class America. For now, as with any endangered species, they can mount a comeback in good conditions. We shall see if Democrats want to make that happen south of the Mason-Dixon line.

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