If six years with Obama in the White House has told us anything, it’s that racial politics are alive and well in the South.
Much as they deny race as a factor, Republican leaders have played on their base’s loathing for Obama, as the nation’s first biracial albeit black-identified president, winning elections from US Senate down to state insurance commissioner.
After every few election cycles, particularly the ones that they lose, the GOP publicly acknowledges its lack of appeal to African Americans and other non-white groups, and pledges to diversify their bench of candidates and work harder at outreach to minority voters. But their actions reveal that they hold little faith in breaking through.
The redistricting exercise undertaken by GOP-controlled legislatures in North Carolina and other states in 2011 maximized partisan advantage by containing and marginalizing black voters rather than bringing them into the fold. It’s worked just as one would expect: Democrats received 44 percent of the vote in North Carolina congressional races this year, but won only three of 13 seats, with similar results in Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky, according to research by Chris Kromm at the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham.
The GOP’s mechanism for tightening control over the electoral system is a perverse use of the Voting Rights Act, which helped establish minority-influence districts. African-American candidates have handily won elections in North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts — the latter now represented by Rep. Alma Adams — over the past two decades. But when the Republicans undertook redistricting in 2011, they seized on the Voting Rights Act as a rationale to pack more black voters into the two districts, thus making the remaining districts safer for Republican candidates.
The Southern electorate has become increasingly polarized, with whites gravitating to the GOP and blacks tightening their affiliation with the Democratic Party. And the Republican Party has masterfully worked the deepening fissure to its advantage, targeting districts where white moderate Democrats had previously won elections with the support of black voters.
The 2011 state Senate map in North Carolina drew Don Vaughan, a white, pro-business Democrat, out of his home district in Guilford County and forced him into retirement. In the state House, they double-bunked white Democrats Pricey Harrison and Maggie Jeffus, pushing Jeffus into retirement. The same Republican-controlled legislature imposed a county commission district map that skimmed African-American voters out of rural District 4, causing Kirk Perkins, a white Democrat, to lose to Republican Alan Branson in 2012.
US Rep. Larry Kissell, a white Democrat in North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District, steered clear of his party’s national convention in nearby Charlotte, where Obama was nominated for a second term. Facing an electorate more heavily tilted to the GOP and having alienated progressive constituents through his vote against the Affordable Care Act, Kissell lost the 2012 election to Republican Richard Hudson.
With US Rep. Mike McIntyre’s decision this year to not seek reelection in the 7th District, another moderate, white Democrat is heading for the exit. David Rouzer, a Republican, handily won the race to replace McIntyre.
With the Republicans effectively denying legislative control to the other party in North Carolina and other Southern states, the Democratic Party has failed to develop a coherent message and program around which to rally voters. In North Carolina, even with Democrats holding the largest share of registered voters, the party was unable to get its candidate for governor elected in 2012 or to insulate US Sen. Kay Hagan from defeat this year.
We’re looking at the return of the Solid South, turning the clock back to a time when conservative white Democrats held an electoral lock on the region from the late 19th Century through the 1960s. The only difference is that the names of the parties have changed.
In my home state of Kentucky, the impotence of the Democratic Party was demonstrated by Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ failure to unseat the deeply unpopular Mitch McConnell, now the US Senate majority leader-elect. McConnell famously vowed in 2010 to make Obama a one-term president. That plays well in a state that Obama has twice failed to carry. When Grimes, a white Democrat, refused to disclose whether she voted for Obama in the 2012 election, it showed just how fractured the party’s coalition was. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, after failing to muster a vote on the Keystone XL Pipeline, Sen. Mary Landrieu, another white moderate Democrat, appears to be headed for defeat in a runoff scheduled for early December.
While the vast majority of Americans find themselves increasingly squeezed in a tepid recovery, the Democratic Party has been unable to to formulate a program to create broad-based prosperity. Notwithstanding Obama’s executive order on immigration, Democratic politicians in the South have kept Latino voters at arm’s length. Changing attitudes about gay rights are also unlikely to revive the Democratic Party because young people vote only sporadically.
Unless they can get their act together, Southern Democrats can look forward to a more limited role for the next 50 years — running progressive municipalities like Asheville and Winston-Salem.