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The Democratic Party in the South Has Changed for Good

The party has been decimated in the South in the Obama era. But it is rebuilding itself in his image.

Davis Turner/Getty Images

“We cannot endure as a city of haves and have-nots,” said Jennifer Roberts during her inauguration as the 53rd mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, in early December. Rough around the edges and unpretentious, Roberts is an ex-foreign service officer who upset a centrist incumbent in the Democratic primary on a platform of raising the minimum wage for city employees and expanding nondiscrimination protections for LGBT citizens.

Never close with the Democratic establishment, and opposed by Charlotte’s largest newspaper, Roberts prevailed anyway by channeling racial and class frustrations in a city gripped by economic inequality. And her message of social and economic justice held special meaning for the striking fast-food workers who packed both the audience and an overflow room for her maiden speech—not to protest, but to celebrate.

Progressive politics may work in a Seattle or a New York City, but they’re not supposed to win campaigns south of the Mason-Dixon. Southern states voted as one Democratic bloc for almost a century after the Civil War, until the landmark civil rights measures of the 1960s combined with Richard Nixon’s election strategy to coax “the old Solid South into the Republican South,” says William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Democrats in the South generally responded to this shift by leaning right and picking off conservative voters where they could. Think of centrist politicians like Lloyd Bentsen, Blanche Lincoln, Sam Nunn, or Bill Clinton. But the Blue Dog Democrat has been pushed to the brink of extinction in the era of President Barack Obama, in the South as surely as everywhere else, and a new coalition of unapologetically liberal Democrats like Roberts have taken control of their party. They may be nearly powerless outside urban, cosmopolitan areas in the South, but these Democrats believe the demographics are on their side to build a liberal Southern majority in the future.

The Democratic Party in the South has changed for good. The Obama presidency in one sense has been a political disaster for southern Democrats, who lost control of West Virginia and saw North Carolina take a hard right turn after the state went for Obama in 2008. But overlooked in this story of defeat is how Obama accelerated the transformation of southern Democrats into “a party of young people, minorities, and educated people, especially educated women,” says Frey.

On the Netflix show House of Cards, Frank Underwood comes from South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, which in real life was represented by the fiscal hawk John Spratt until he was defeated in 2010. But if Democrats finally win back the 5th, chances are the candidate will look less like Underwood and Spratt, and more like the women on stage for Rachel Maddow’s First in the South candidates forum in Rock Hill in November.

And in North Carolina, Democratic Senate nominees have evolved from Sam Ervin, Jim Hunt, and John Edwards, to Kay Hagan and Elaine Marshall. “Sixty percent of the voters in a Democratic primary are women, and our base is younger single women,” says Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina who worked for Marshall. “That makes any female candidate hard to beat.” (Both Hagan and Marshall went on to lose in their general election campaigns.)

Before Obama, there was a clear distinction between the Democratic politics of the North and the Midwest and the Democratic politics of the South. But outside of Deep South, that too has changed. “Southern Democrats are catching up with their national brethren as their base becomes more urban,” says Dr. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at North Carolina’s Catawba College. 

As the party becomes more educated and urban, and as, Bitzer says, “the new guard brings a more socially liberal philosophy,” Democrats in the rural South will either abandon the modern party, as former Virginia Senator (and short-lived presidential candidate) Jim Webb did in October, or they will change with their party as Andy Griffith, a native of North Carolina’s foothills, did by endorsing Obama in 2008.

While you’ll still find the occasional good ole boy like Joe Sam Queen serving in a state legislature, the rising Democratic stars in the South are Jeff JacksonStacey Abrams, Karen Carter Peterson, and Megan Barry, who come from cities and sound more like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama than Zell Miller or Dick Harpootlian.

“If it weren’t for gerrymandering, Blue Dogs could be competitive in certain rural districts,” says Mills, the Democratic strategist. But a trial balloon in North Carolina proposing Heath Shuler—formerly one of the U.S. House’s most stalwart Blue Dogs—for U.S. Senate quickly popped. Instead, Democrats are poised to nominate an outspoken liberal, former ACLU attorney Deborah Ross. “Statewide, the Blue Dog may be dead,” says Mills.

It’s true that John Bel Edwards won the governorship of Louisiana last year as a pro-life and pro-gun Democrat, but his socially conservative positions are “not the future of Democratic politics in the South,” says Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Conservative white voters are not part of the future Democratic coalition and that makes conservative Democrats an endangered species.”

Southern Democrats are increasingly looking to borrow from the playbook of Terry McAuliffe, who was elected governor of Virginia in 2013 by running an “unapologetically liberal campaign that worked because “Virginia is a different place than it was 10 years ago,” says Teixeira. Virginia isn’t alone. “The Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia are experiencing high population growth, and the diverse population, given time, will vote Democratic,” says Frey of the Brookings Institution. “Florida is no longer part of the South. Georgia will turn into North Carolina, one day so might Tennessee, and the $64,000 question is when Texas is going to turn.” 

According to “States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974–2060,” a 2015 report coauthored by Frey and Teixeira, America will go from 80 percent white in 1980 to less than 44 percent in 2060, when Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida join Texas as majority-minority states. A change will be “fueled by a combination of immigration of Asians and Latinos and the reverse migration of blacks,” says Teixeira.

That “reverse migration” has been happening for decades now, but continues to accelerate. New York, Chicago, and Detroit are experiencing losses in their black population as “children and grandchildren move back to the South,” says Frey, noting a shift to cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, Houston, and Atlanta “that will affect the suburban South in ways we would never have understood 20 years ago.”

Demographics are already making the difference in Houston, where liberal state representative Sylvester Turner was elected mayor in December despite losing 71 percent of the vote in white precincts, and in Louisiana, where Edwards won by running up the score in parishes Obama carried in 2012.

Southern Sun Belt states may ultimately become more important for Democratic campaigns than the aging Rust Belt. North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida already have a higher percentage of liberals than Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, New Hampshire, or Ohio. And “if Democrats win Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, they deny Republicans the White House,” says Bitzer, all else staying equal.

But Democrats can’t rely on demographics alone. “Even with demographic changes we have to have a winning message,” says former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean. Indeed, Democrats can expand the Obama coalition. Jennifer Roberts won the mayoralty of Charlotte by taking Black Lives Matter seriously and by offering an economic agenda tailored to the working class. Her focus on the minimum wage should be emulated by Democrats who wish to unite the Obama coalition with rural non-voting whites, because “when Democrats do appeal to the white working class it will be through economically populist ideas, not pandering,” says Teixeira.

“It’s still too soon to declare the end of the Solid South, but the politics of these states will change because Republicans will have to change,” says Teixeira, to catch up with the demographics that lean left in the long term. 

“One of two things will happen,” says Dean. “Either the South becomes Democratic or the Republican Party will moderate.” Based on what we’re seeing in the 2016 GOP primary, the safe bet is on a bluer South.