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.
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.

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

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