As I pointed out in last year’s very well-aged article “The Southeast is Actually the MOST Important Area for Democrats”—which you should read if you haven’t already—there is no future for the Democratic Party that doesn’t include major gains in the Southeast. What is currently being thought of as “hopelessly lost Trump country” is the only way Democrats are going to take back enough of America to stop Republicans. And it’s worth pointing out a few things…
1. The Southeast is the Democratic Party’s past and future. For as long as there has been a Democratic Party, it’s headquarters was the Southeast from the very first Democratic President (Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson) all the way until Bill Clinton. In fact, before Obama, the last three Democratic Presidents were Clinton, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, and the Lone Star state’s own LBJ. And let’s not forget that Tennessee’s Al Gore won the popular vote and if he had carried his home state, we wouldn’t have had eight years of W.
All that started to change when Obama won in 2008 and Southern Democrats experienced political genocide in the 2010 midterm bloodbath. For all the talk of how “hopelessly lost” the Southeast is, people sure seem to forget that until 2010 a majority of Southern state legislatures were Democratic, and it’s only afterwards that Obama’s legislative agenda came to a pace somewhere between snail mating and VCR production. The Midwest has pretty much always been a Republican-stronghold but the Southeast hasn’t until very recent history. And the Democrats will never regain a majority in either branch of congress until they start winning in the Southeast again or at the very least making it competitive so outlier congressional candidates can break through.
2. There has never been a winning Democratic President who’s been shut out of the Southeast. From Andrew Jackson to LBJ the South was reliably Democratic in Presidential elections. Things started to get a bit murky after that but one thing was clear: if a Democratic nominee for President got completely shut-out of the Southeast, they weren’t becoming President. The overwhelming majority of Jimmy Carter’s wins came from Southern states in his 1976 win. [Ford even carried California and Carter still won with Texas.] And Bill “Bubba” Clinton stripped away Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana in his 1992 upset. Both of these victories were against incumbent Republican Presidents, and Democrats might want to keep that in mind as they look for people to challenge Trump in 2020.
“Well, you’re overstating it” smug non-Southern liberals everywhere might add. Except that I’m not. Obama won North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida in 2008, and the latter two in 2012. Hillary got shut-out of the Southeast except for Virginia and lost. People talk about Flordia in the 2000 election debacle but if Gore had won his home state of Tennessee, he would’ve been President (not to sound repetitive). And Humphrey, McGovern, Carter (1980), Mondale, Dukasis, and John Kerry all won either zero states or only one in the Southeast. The equation is simple: if you win only one state or less in the Southeast, you can’t become President.
3. The South’s Democratic Party is Minority-Majority. There are only six states in America where black Americans make up more than 25% of the electorate, excluding Maryland, all the rest are Southern: Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama (believe it or not), Georgia, and especially Mississippi which is over a third black. It’s no coincidence that all of the congressional Democrats from these states are black. During the Obama years and beyond, the Democratic Party’s strategy has been to increase minority voter turnout, and there’s no better place in America to try this strategy than the black population of “the Deep South” and the Latino populations of Florida or Texas which could be the key to Julian Castro beating Ted Cruz in a 2018 senate race. Not to mention, if a Democratic Presidential candidate had California, New York, Florida, and Texas they would never sweat losing the Rust Belt again.
4. The Things Democrats Want Aren’t Possible Without Southern Congressional Democrats. I want you to think about every big legislative victory FDR and LBJ accomplished. Go ahead, imagine Social Security and Medicare, The New Deal and The Great Society, ending the Depression and the War on Poverty, and once you’ve gotten a taste of that better, more hopeful period for economic progress also know this: none of it was possible without Southern Democrats. If Republicans had had a strangle-hold on the Southeast during those times as they do now, you wouldn’t have the social safety net and few economically progressive things America has enjoyed for decades. The Southeast will have to at least become purple—as it was, believe it or not, during Obama’s first two years in office—if a future Democratic President has any hope of getting any big things done.
5. State Legislatures Exist. This has become a shockingly-muted issue for Democrats: the existence of state governments, and the fact that we have become completely uncompetitive in two-thirds of them. Outside of a handful of states, Democrats do not control “the trifecta” of state house, state senate, and Governor, while Republicans have a trifecta in nearly half the country, with two-thirds of state governments overall. See, just the words “state governments” are already making you sleepy, aren’t they?
But state governments in some ways have more power over people’s daily lives than the federal government. Most of the abortion restrictions and transgender bathroom bills and school segregations and pension defundings have come from state governments that have enormous power over a state’s public education, tax system, social safety net, environmental restrictions (i.e. whether you get poisoned or not), and a hundred other things. There’s a reason Flint, Michigan’s water was poisoned under a Republican state government and there have been no comparable scandals under Democratic state governments.
And they have enormous power over exactly how much of a Democratic President’s agenda they want to adopt. The national congress can pass all the bills they want, but none of it matters if a state’s government refuses to implement them, as we’ve seen on everything from the decades-long, nasty, shameful fight over interracial marriage to today’s squabbles over immigration (“sanctuary cities”), Obamacare, and Obama’s stimulus money that some Republican governors flat-out refused to take. Even if a Democratic President does beat Trump in 2020 and said President does adopt an economically progressive agenda, at least some of the Southeast will need to implement it on a state level to show that it actually works. Just ask Kentucky, who had a Democratic Governor (at the time) that warmly adopted Obamacare, and was the first real sign that the Affordable Care Act worked.
Like it or not, Democrats need the Southeast, and the Southeast most definitely needs Democrats.