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Mark Greenbaum

Southern Democrats a vanished breed

For the past 40 years, analysts and historians have persistently proclaimed the demise of Democratic influence in the South. While Southern states have been trending Republican in presidential elections for decades, Democrats had been remarkably resilient in hanging onto seats in Congress and in more local, regional races.

No more. In the wake of the midterm elections, the Southern Democrat is finally dead, perhaps for good.

Interestingly, despite the Democratic Party's inability to compete for most Electoral College votes below the Mason-Dixon Line since Lyndon Johnson's presidency, it has remained at near parity with Republicans in Congress.

Entering this month's midterms, nearly half of the South's House seats were occupied by Democrats in deeply red districts in places like Hattiesburg, Miss.; Waco, Texas; Macon, Ga.; and Northern Florida. The sitting representatives had survived for an astonishing average of 13 years amid growing anti-Democratic regional climates. Their seemingly unbreakable holds represented the last vestiges of the once-mighty Southern Democratic bulwark.

That firewall was effectively burned down as 22 Southern seats switched sides, with two more remaining Democratic by less than half a percent. Of the 22 seats, 16 went for John McCain in 2008. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which measures the political lean of congressional districts, 17 of them voted anywhere from 5 to 20 percent more Republican on average than the national as a whole — a fairly definitive sign of heavy GOP affiliation. The makeup of these districts ensures that Democrats will probably be unable to win back many of these seats for decades, if ever.

For Democrats, any rebuilding plans are further complicated by GOP state-level gains. Republicans held or won governorships in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, in addition to their existing holds in Mississippi and Virginia, and also hold each of their respective state legislatures with the exception of the Mississippi House, putting the GOP in nearly complete control of 2011 Southern reapportionment.

For example, the GOP's recapturing of the Tennessee governor's mansion and its takeover of three formerly Democratic House seats illustrates the state's final lurch toward the Republicans, and the party will have a free hand to draw Tennessee's House map. Similarly, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's re-election will ensure that the Austin Republicans can insulate two freshly plucked swing districts, to say nothing of a harsh statewide gerrymander.

In Florida, the issue is more complex, as voters approved a constitutional amendment that blocks partisan gerrymandering. But with shrinking left-leaning pockets in the state, it's not entirely clear that Democrats, who are in the minority in the Legislature, can drastically better the current 19-to-6 split favoring congressional Republicans. The map may end up subject to court approval, which could simply preserve the status quo.

Collectively, then, Republicans' viselike grip on the levers of state redistricting could both lock in place Republicans' victories and stunt any chance of a Democratic resurgence until 2020.

Those 39 Southern House seats that Democrats still hold are mostly gerrymandered districts, as just five of them were McCain districts, and around two-thirds are majority-minority. Democrats have been relegated to a minimum of seats and obstructed from substantively building up again.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of one party's demise are often greatly exaggerated. Following the 2006 and 2008 cycles, many observers pronounced Northeast Republicanism extinguished after the GOP had endured over a dozen losses in New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania. But this year, Republicans took back nearly every one of those seats, sweepingly reinvigorating what was seen as a decrepit regional presence.

However, Democrats' current position is simply not analogous to this quick turnaround. At the time of their capture by Democrats, most of these Northeastern seats had slightly Republican configurations, just as the Republicans' new Southern seats, though to a much greater extent. Democrats were in effect sitting on borrowed time in these pink Northeast districts. Conversely, the Southern seats they just relinquished are not blue, but rather so naturally conservative that their ability to reclaim them is far more unworkable than what Republicans did in retaking their lost Empire and Keystone state turf.

The Northeastern Republican, while a shell of its former strength, still lives. The Southern Democrat, after years of impressive resilience, is dead, and resuscitation is not likely.

Mark Greenbaum is a writer and attorney in Washington. His e-mail is

Southern Democrats a vanished breed 11/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 7:45pm]
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