Thursday, November 6, 2014

White Southern Democrats face extinction -- Nov. 6, 2014 column


Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at a joyous White House ceremony. That night, though, when presidential aide Bill Moyers stopped by the living quarters, he found the president melancholy.

“He looked at me morosely and said, in effect, `I think we just handed the South to the Republicans for the rest of my life and yours.’” Moyers recounted on PBS, adding, “And so we had.”

The 2014 midterm elections marked the demise of the white Southern Democrat. On Tuesday, voters fired the last one in the U.S. House from a state in the Deep South.

Democrats also lost Senate races in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina and nearly lost Virginia. A Dec. 6 run-off in Louisiana is a challenge for Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. All seven gubernatorial races in the South went to the GOP.  

Republicans ran the table across the country, not just in the South, but considering that Southern Democrats once ruled Congress – 103 of 105 House members from the South were Democrats in 1950 -- their disappearance is remarkable.

Dubbed “the loneliest man in Congress,” Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., had the distinction of being the last white Democrat in the House from the Deep South. Barrow, a conservative who had the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, had held his seat since 2004. He lost to Republican Rick Allen. And so ends an era.

In the next Congress, every one of the Democrats in the House from the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina will be black.

Virginia will have two white Democratic members in the U.S. House, both from Northern Virginia, and one black House member representing a majority-black district that stretches from Richmond to Hampton Roads.

An anti-President Obama fever felled Barrow and other Democrats. Southern voters weren’t just turning the page; they were tearing it up.

Even having a distinguished political pedigree couldn’t save the Southern Democrat. Also in Georgia, Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, and Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, lost their bids for governor and senator, respectively.

Nunn campaigned with her dad, promising to adopt his practice of working across the political aisle to get things done.

In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor, son of former Sen. David Pryor, lost his re-election bid to freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, an Iraq War veteran. Pryor has been a name in Arkansas politics since 1960 when David Pryor was first elected a state representative. He went on to be a congressman and governor before serving in the Senate from 1979 to 1997.

The South has evolved a two-party system deeply divided by race. White voters form the base of the Republican party and African Americans the base of the Democratic party.  

“The racial split remains one of the starkest divides in Georgia politics,” the Associated Press reported from early exit polls.

Republican Senate candidate David Perdue won about 70 percent of the white vote and Nunn took the overwhelming majority of the black vote, AP said. Nunn had hoped to win enough of the white vote to force Perdue into a run-off, but he won with 53 percent to her 45 percent.

Mark Pryor also won the black vote, exit polls reported, but he suffered a stinging loss to Cotton, 57 percent to 40 percent.

The Southern disaffection with Democrats is hardly new. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched parties and became a Republican three months after Johnson signed the Civil Rights law. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia quit the party and became an independent in 1970, and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama became a Republican in 1994.

Ronald Reagan courted Southern voters in 1980 and enlisted support for his legislative agenda from the Conservative Democratic Forum, known as the boll weevils, many of whom were Southerners concerned about deficit spending.

The Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats, founded by Southerners in 1995 in a last gasp to remain relevant, has been shrinking. In 2010, it had about 50 members and before the midterm was down to 19. Now it has lost its last white member from the Deep South.    

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