Search This Blog

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Realignment and the South

Our chapter on political parties discusses the concept of partisan realignment, the shift of voting strength from one party to another. The South has been trending Republican since the 1950s, first in presidential elections, then in statewide elections. During the 1990s, the bulk of its House seats moved to the GOP. The last stronghold of Southern Democrats consisted of state legislatures. As Jonathan Martin explains in Politico, that stronghold fell in 2010:

Protected by a potent mix of gerrymandering, pork, seniority and a friends-and-neighbors electorate, Democratic state representatives and senators managed to survive through the South’s GOP evolution — the Reagan years, the Republican landslide of 1994 and George W. Bush’s two terms. Yet scores of them retired or went down in defeat earlier this month. And at least 10 more across three states have changed parties since the elections, with rumors swirling through state capitols of more to come before legislative sessions commence in January. Facing the prospect of losing their seats through reapportionment — if not in the next election — others will surely choose flight over fight.

Democrats lost both chambers of the legislature this year in North Carolina and Alabama, meaning that they now control both houses of the capitol in just two Southern states, Arkansas and Mississippi, the latter of which could flip to the GOP in the next election.

The losses and party switching, one former Southern Democratic governor noted, “leave us with little bench for upcoming and future elections.”

“There's little reason to be optimistic in my region,” said this former governor, who did not want to be quoted by name offering such a downcast assessment. “We can opportunistically pick up statewides every now and then, but building a sustainable party program isn't in the cards. I suppose the president has bigger concerns now, but it’s not healthy for the Democrats to write off our region and not have any real strategy to be competitive.”

Part of the reason for this pessimism is that the Democrats who were defeated and those who are changing parties are overwhelmingly of the same type: rural white males who are more conservative than their national party.

With a few isolated exceptions, it now seems that the party’s rural Southern tradition is a thing of the past — even at the statehouse level, where familiar faces were able for years to make the case that they were a different kind of Democrat.