Can Democrats Win Back the Deep South?

It may be less far-fetched than you think, at least according to a new crop of activists who are trying to turn back the Republican tide in America's reddest region.
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A volunteer for President Obama's 2012 campaign in Wilson, North Carolina. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, municipal elections were held in Mississippi. The state Republican Party concentrated its efforts on four traditional GOP strongholds -- Tupelo, Meridian, Starkville, and the picturesque Gulf Coast burg of Ocean Springs.

But on Election Day, June 4, Mississippi Republicans got a rude shock: They lost all four.

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Tupelo got its first Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years, a 37-year-old trial lawyer. Meridian got its first black mayor ever. Ocean Springs' Democratic incumbent won a third term to preside over an all-Republican board of aldermen. Mississippi Democrats proclaimed it "Blue Tuesday."

"It's been a long time coming," Percy Bland, the 42-year-old mayor-elect of Meridian, told me. "We haven't had a Democratic mayor in Meridian since '76. And we won it running away, when people thought it would be very close." To win 54 percent of the vote, he said, he had to attract support from blacks and whites, Democrats, Republicans, and independents. In April, Bland had found a stuffed dog hanging from a noose outside his insurance business. In his victory speech, he paid tribute to the three civil-rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in nearby Philadelphia in 1964. They died, he said, so the people of Meridian could vote.

A handful of local elections in Mississippi is hardly a blue wave. But Democrats across the South hope what just happened there is the start of something big -- the first ripple of a Democratic comeback in the Deep South. They've formed at least three new regional political groups to try to make that happen, including one called South Forward that assisted in four winning mayoral campaigns, providing direct mail, radio ads, get-out-the-vote calls, and staff support.

A Democratic comeback will be a tall order, to say the least, in a region whose political story in recent decades has been a steady march toward the GOP. "It's hard to conceive we could go any farther down," chuckled Don Fowler, the South Carolinian who chaired the Democratic National Committee in the 1990s and is now chairman of South Forward. "But where can you find a place where a new Democratic thrust would be more welcome and could do more good?" The South, of course, has been Democratic before: the post-Reconstruction, pre-Civil Rights era when it was the party's "Solid South." But Nixon's "Southern Strategy" began a decades-long realignment toward the GOP at all levels of government. In 2012, Republicans took over the Arkansas state legislature, and Democrats now do not control a single legislative chamber in the old Confederacy.

If you're looking at the 2012 electoral map, with its solid swath of red stretching from the Carolinas to Texas, Democrats' bid for a Southern rebound may sound like a lot of bluster and wishful thinking. But it may not be completely far-fetched. President Obama, after all, won Florida and Virginia twice and North Carolina once. In 2012, he got 44 percent of the vote in South Carolina and Mississippi and 45 percent in Georgia -- the best showing by a Democratic nominee in three decades.

Much hype has attended Battleground Texas, a project to flip the Lone Star State by a group of Obama campaign alums. But Obama lost Texas by 16 points. He lost Georgia by just 8 points. (Early in the 2012 campaign, Democratic strategists made some noises about making a play for Georgia. When I asked Obama adviser David Axelrod about it this week, he insisted that was not merely an attempt to fake out the opposition. "We seriously looked at it," he told me in an email. "It fell slightly outside our parameters for full investment, but was intriguing.")

The demographics of the South are changing fast. Quite simply, all of the states of the old Confederacy are getting less white, said Chris Kromm, director of the Durham, N.C.-based Institute for Southern Studies, a research center founded by civil-rights-movement veterans. "I don't think there's any question there is a lot of potential [for Democrats] there given how rapidly the landscape of the South is changing," he said, calling it a "highly volatile moment in Southern politics."

The Southern states have America's fastest-growing Latino populations. Of 11 states whose Hispanic populations doubled between 2000 and 2011, nine -- Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas -- were in the South. Black populations are also growing, thanks in part to a new migration of African-Americans back to the South. At current rates of growth, Georgia and Mississippi could be majority-minority states within a decade. South Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, won in 2010 by 60,000 votes; demographers estimate there are as many as 100,000 eligible but unregistered African-American voters in the state.

Other forces are changing the region's culture. Though the South remains more rural than the rest of the country, its cities and suburbs -- from the North Carolina Research Triangle to the Atlanta exurbs -- are booming thanks to an influx of white-collar professionals. "The urban centers in the South are becoming centers of political power, and that's what's going to change politics," Kromm said.

A Region Ripe for Change
In 2000, a national Democratic consultant named Jill Hanauer moved to Colorado and decided the West was ripe for political change. After helping Democrats take the Colorado legislature in 2004, in 2007 she started a company called Project New West to help other Democrats in a region where demographic changes and the Republican Party's shift to the right had altered the political equation.

Since the days of Arizonan Barry Goldwater, the Southwest had been solidly Republican. But that changed in the last decade. Western Democrats like Brian Schweitzer and Harry Reid won by emphasizing quality-of-life issues like education and the environment, neutralizing the culture war (often by professing love for the Second Amendment), and mobilizing the growing Hispanic vote. Far-right Republicans like former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo helped Western Democrats make the case to moderate suburbanites that the GOP had gone off the ideological deep end. Now, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado have voted Democratic in two straight presidential elections, and the party has even managed to win statewide elections in Montana and Arizona.

"We moved into the Southwest on the theory that the demographics were changing and Republicans had gone too far to the right," Hanauer told me. Two years ago, she detected the same thing starting to happen in the South. She changed her firm's name to Project New America and quietly began to research a new region.

In the coming weeks, Hanauer and Loranne Ausley, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, plan to launch something they're calling the Southern Project, which will conduct research and formulate messages that can help Democrats win over Southern voters. A pilot study conducted in North Carolina in February, for example, concluded that under the state's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, "there is a clear sense that hardworking taxpayers are getting the short end of the stick at the expense of big corporations and the wealthiest." The set of talking points advises progressives to make arguments "focused around fairness and accountability," whether the issue is tax reform or charter schools. The Southern Project will equip Southern Democrats with similar examples of messages that have been poll-tested to resonate with voters.

Obama lost North Carolina by just 2 percentage points in 2012, but Republicans took the governor's mansion and a supermajority in the state legislature, helped by a multimillionaire named Art Pope who poured money into the party and its candidates. After the election, McCrory put Pope in his administration's budget department and began pushing a highly ideological agenda through the state legislature, sparking a backlash that has resulted in weeks of protests at the statehouse in Raleigh.

Ausley, who ran unsuccessfully for statewide office in Florida in 2010, said Republicans across the South risk alienating voters with their hard rightward turn. Every Republican-led Southern state has rejected the federally funded expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, she noted; in Florida, Governor Rick Scott tried to accept the funds, but his own Republican-dominated legislature blocked the move. Southern Republicans have recently decried women's entry into the workforce and advocated teaching schoolchildren about proper gender roles.

"Republicans are doing the same thing over and over again to appeal to their base, and at some point it has to come back to bite them," Ausley said. Southern voters are generally conservative, but they're not extremists, as Mississippi showed in 2011 when it overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have declared a fertilized egg to be a "person" with rights. Genteel Southern moderates like Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia find themselves increasingly endangered by Tea Party primary challenges; Chambliss has chosen not to run for reelection next year, setting up a race that will test Democrats' ability to win in that state.

The Democrats working in the South emphasize the long-term nature of their project. "The South is not where the West was" a decade ago, Hanauer told me. "But there is a lot of infrastructure starting to be built, and Republican legislators are going further than the Southern public wants. There's going to be a backlash."

Building From the Bottom
When Connie Moran attended Georgetown University, she was president of the D.C. College Republicans. But in the 1990s, she switched parties based on a belief that Democrats' policies better served the poor and disadvantaged. Six weeks after she first took office as mayor of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina devastated the coastal city of about 25,000 people.

In her campaign for a third term this year, Moran, now 57, faced stiff opposition. Republicans recruited a well-credentialed candidate to challenge her, a sitting county commissioner; the governor and lieutenant governor campaigned for him. Moran had run a losing campaign for statewide office, and the GOP was eager to make a stand in the largely white, Republican community.

Moran didn't apologize for her progressive views: "I made my campaign about our people, our businesses, our schools, how much we've progressed and how much we need to continue," she said. "That word, progress, is not a dirty word." To charges that she was a tax-and-spend socialist, she responded by touting the public works she'd funded with tax dollars. "People want quality services, and they are willing to pay for that," she said. She won with 62 percent of the vote.

It didn't hurt that South Forward, acting independently of Moran's campaign, sent out mailers slamming her opponent for alleged financial improprieties. Moran's campaign adviser, Ana Maria Rosato, told me platitudes are nice, but it's the hard work of campaigns -- and the money to carry them out -- that will truly power Southern Democrats to victory. "Engage, engage, engage," she said. "We can't just be sitting around with our chardonnay. How many people did you register to vote? How much money did you give? How many people did you call?"

That's where the new groups such as South Forward and the Southern Project could make an impact -- by providing resources and support to races and states that are often off the radar of the national Democratic Party. A third group, the Southern Progress Fund, also is gearing up to launch in the coming months, led by former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove, who lost reelection in 2003 to Republican Haley Barbour. The group, Musgrove told me, will be a multistate PAC providing funds and assistance to state legislative and other downballot campaigns; registering voters; and protecting voters' rights at the polls.

The goal, Musgrove said, is "to lay the groundwork long-term for the South once again to be a Democratic stronghold," by "building a strong bench of up-and-coming Democratic leaders." Republicans, naturally, are skeptical of all this. Chip Felkel, a Greenville, S.C.-based GOP consultant who worked on both of George W. Bush's campaigns, said Democrats have alienated themselves from Southern culture in a way that will be hard to reverse.

"It's still a place that, to borrow a phrase, clings to its guns and religion, and I think it will continue to do so," Felkel said. "As long as the Democratic Party still seems to be the party that's opposed to religion and guns, a large segment of the Southern population is going to have trouble with that, especially at the federal level."

But Felkel is also troubled by the direction of his own party, which he sees being hijacked by far-right activists with little regard for the GOP's traditions. Felkel cut his teeth with the 1986 campaign of the legendary former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell, but he's afraid Campbell's type couldn't get through a Republican primary in this day and age.

"The people who helped to bring the Republican Party into power -- President Reagan, Governor Campbell -- those people would not be viewed as Republican enough for some of these Tea Party types today," Felkel said. "It bothers me greatly. I think it's a path to insignificance."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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