The ailing Democratic Party, its stature as a national party teetering, appears poised to be staggered again Saturday if underdog Sen. Mary Landrieu loses her bid for re-election as expected in Louisiana.
The likely win by Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy in a runoff election would complete a near-sweep this year of Southern Senate seats and governorships, in 10 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. The Democrats’ only victory was in Virginia, where Sen. Mark Warner barely survived a stunning surge by Republican Ed Gillespie.
The Louisiana race is emblematic of the trouble Democrats faced in 2014 and are likely to confront for years. The party is widely regarded in the South as “hostile and indifferent” to the interests of white working-class voters, said Merle Black, a Southern politics expert at Emory University.
Landrieu, a three-term senator, won 42 percent in the Nov. 4 election. Cassidy got 41 percent, and conservative Rob Maness won 14 percent. Because no one got a majority, the top two finishers vie in Saturday’s runoff.
November’s exit polls illustrate Landrieu’s challenge. Four of five Louisiana voters were worried about the economy, and Landrieu won only 38 percent of the ones who were. She barely got 1 of 5 white votes, about two-thirds of the electorate, and 94 percent of the black vote.
Those patterns were repeated throughout the South. In nine other Southern states with Senate race exit polls, Warner did the best among whites, winning 37 percent. Five Southern Democrats got 22 percent or less.
A Landrieu loss would be the latest blow to Democrats. Other than Virginia, only Florida has a Democratic senator or governor, once Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe retires in January. Sen. Bill Nelson was re-elected to a third term in 2012.
Part of the Republican success results from the uniqueness of 2014. Incumbents in three Southern states where President Barack Obama was unpopular were up for re-election, and they were hobbled by their voting records. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who lost last month, had the worst party-line record – and he’d still sided with Obama 90 percent of the time last year.
The Democratic record included support for the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which Republicans touted as the latest Democratic intrusion into private lives as well as the party’s yen for big, expensive government.
This year’s Democratic stumbles were the latest chapter in a drama that’s been building for 50 years. Democrats had a stranglehold on the “Solid South” through the 1960s. But as President Lyndon Johnson famously said after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
The big shift came in the 1980s. Many black voters had been longtime Republican allies, a carryover from the post-Civil War-era days, when the party championed civil rights while Democrats ruled the segregated South. President Dwight Eisenhower won 39 and 32 percent of the black vote in his presidential bids in 1952 and 1956.
Though non-Southern Democrats joined Northeastern and Midwestern Republicans to push civil rights legislation, the Democratic Party became identified as more sympathetic to social change, thanks to the leadership of Johnson and President John Kennedy. More conservative and moderate whites became more loyal to Republicans.
By the 1980s, the civil rights issue had taken a different turn, and Democrats were the party of affirmative action and big government. President Ronald Reagan wooed conservatives, particularly in the South, with his strong anti-big-government rhetoric. Reagan won 9 percent of the black vote in 1984; no Republican presidential candidate since has won more than 12 percent.
Democrats tended to continue ruling the South’s state and local governments, but as those officeholders left, Republicans replaced them. The party built a farm team of candidates who’d begin reaching Congress and statehouses by the 1990s.
Among the class of 2014, Arkansas Sen.-elect Tom Cotton and Louisiana’s Cassidy are members of the U.S. House of Representatives. North Carolina Sen.-elect Thom Tillis is the speaker of the North Carolina House. Texas Gov.-elect Greg Abbott is the state’s attorney general, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is a former congressman.
If the South’s Republicans didn’t ascend, they switched parties. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama was elected as a Democrat in 1986 and became a Republican in 1994 after being outraged by President Bill Clinton’s support for higher taxes.
“We were never national Democrats,” he recalled. “Democrats claimed us, but we voted conservative. We voted for Republicans, so it made sense to switch parties.”
Some Republicans, well aware of the volatile nature of voters, warn that while the party has momentum, it can’t declare a lock on the South. They caution that this year’s Republican Southern triumph was very much the result of Obama’s deep unpopularity.
“This is not necessarily people voting for us. People want a change,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.
Former South Carolina Gov. James Hodges, a Democrat, predicted that candidates who can separate themselves from the national Democratic Party might rise again.
“Instead of trying to sell the Democratic brand,” he said, “they need to sell themselves.”
That’s getting harder, because Democrats can’t escape the brand. As Black put it, “Democrats are not viewed as representing the interests of the middle class and working class in the South.”