Dixie Chicks

A new kind of Democrat is emerging in the South—and she's no shrinking violet

A year ago few political experts would have guessed that a woman or a Democrat stood a solid chance of becoming South Carolina's next senator. The fact that Inez Tenenbaum, who is running competitively for the state's open Senate seat, is both makes her a very unusual politician. It's not just her party and her sex that set her apart: at just over five feet tall, Tenenbaum seems to disappear when she wades into a crowd. She gives this, like many other potential negatives, a positive spin: at a recent barbecue fundraiser in Seneca she touted herself as "the little woman with big ideas." This struck a chord with the small-town crowd, whose enthusiasm grew as Tenenbaum recited her qualifications—not just as the state's twice-elected superintendent of education but also as a former homecoming queen. By the time she had exhorted her audience to recruit GRITs—"Good Republicans for Inez Tenenbaum"—most appeared eager to help. "She'd be such a gracious presence in the Senate," Libby Woodell, a retired social worker, said. "There doesn't seem to be a mean bone in her body, but she's tough."

That combination of toughness and charm has helped Tenenbaum join a growing cadre of Democratic women who are winning statewide elections in perhaps the unlikeliest part of the country—conservative Dixie. The South has grown so Republican over the past decade that some Democratic strategists speak openly of abandoning it. Yet in recent years the Democrats Blanche Lincoln, of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, have managed to win Senate races, and Kathleen Blanco the Louisiana governor's race, in a style very much their own. "In their graciousness they are clearly daughters of the South," the political analyst Jennifer Duffy explains. "But they are also smart, political, and not to be taken lightly." All these women hail from the political center-right, favoring a robust military, gun owners' rights, and tax cuts—a far cry from the pantsuited liberals of the Hillary Clinton mold who leap to mind at the phrase "female Democratic senator." And they skillfully exploit traditional gender stereotypes. "I'm delighted when a man stands up when I enter a room," Lincoln declares. "But once I'm in the room, I also expect there will be a place for me at the table." Duffy has christened this formidable new breed of politician "Steel Magnolias."

Tenenbaum and similar candidates have found particular favor with women, who are a cornerstone of their electoral success. In a region where the white male vote is staunchly Republican, the best chance for a Democrat to win statewide election is by making substantial inroads among centrist and Republican-leaning women. "There are more independents among white women," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, "and women candidates seem to have an easier time reaching out to them than some of the male candidates." If a woman can draw on female solidarity and still attract minority votes in sufficient number, she can eke out a victory.

Tenenbaum still has a long way to go to win in what is one of the most Republican states in the South. But the fact that hers and a handful of other races are unexpectedly close means that the Democrats stand a chance of regaining control of the Senate this fall, tipping the balance of power in Washington. Until recently that seemed an unlikely notion—but then, until recently so did the prospect of a candidate like Tenenbaum.

Getting elected as a Democratic woman in the South is no easy proposition. In addition to everything else a politician is expected to do, candidates must adhere to a strict southern code of personal appearance. In the swampy heat of the barbecue, the immaculately made-up Tenenbaum was invited to shuck her jacket but demurred. "It wouldn't be senatorial," she said with a smile. "Those things are important." Sartorial savoir faire comes naturally to a former homecoming queen, but not every candidate starts off so inclined. Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College, in Alabama, had rarely bothered with makeup before entering the 1996 Democratic senatorial primary; but the campaign consultant she hired told her to pay a visit to the cosmetics counter. Davis's oversize pins were banished, and she stopped appearing in public wearing slacks. Davis, who lost her race, nevertheless says that every credible female candidate must make similar calculations: "You follow the rules of the game—not new ones you would make for yourself."

Perhaps the first rule is to project plenty of charm. This can blunt the negative associations that frequently attach to ambitious women. "Inez just gives this warm, connected feeling," says Anna Ryan, a Republican homemaker in Greenville who has held fundraisers for Tenenbaum. "She's not at all pushy. She's determined." The ability to smooth over a tense situation with a smile and a quip can be invaluable too. Cathy Cox, the Georgia secretary of state, who is being discussed as a possible candidate for governor in 2006, recalls fielding some blatantly sexist queries in the early 1990s when she was a candidate for state representative from a rural county. "People would ask me if I would be all right in Atlanta by myself—particularly because I wasn't married at the time," she says. Rather than pointing out that no one would ask this of a man, Cox joked about finding a convent to board with in the big city. The master of the clever retort, of course, is Cox's political idol Ann Richards, a pioneering Magnolia who won the Texas governorship in 1990.

It isn't all Scarlett O'Hara. Being a mother, for example, can be an outright advantage when these candidates want to foster the sense that as lawmakers they are more caring and empathetic than men. During the final days of last year's race for governor in Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco—locked in a neck-and-neck battle with the Republicans' thirty-two-year-old whiz kid Bobby Jindal, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—very effectively suggested that where Jindal could discern only numbers, she saw real people. Blanco, the mother of six, featured a passel of children in her TV spots to drive the point home. Other Magnolias have used a similar strategy. Blanche Lincoln opted against a third term in the House because of a high-risk pregnancy, but trumpeted her new motherhood when she ran for the Senate two years after her twin sons were born. Her campaign spots featured family photographs with the caption "Daughter, wife, mother, congresswoman." The order was not arbitrary.

For all that they must prove themselves feminine, these candidates would never carry a state on graciousness and empathy alone. Or, as one of them might put it, there's plenty of "steel" in a Steel Magnolia—as the former representative Bill Alexander can attest. Lincoln, who once worked for Alexander, got into Congress by beating him in the 1992 primary, where she exploited his role in the House bank-overdraft scandal. "I'll promise you one thing," the thirty-one-year-old candidate told voters. "I can sure enough balance my checkbook." Lincoln's colleague Mary Landrieu is no shrinking violet either. After a televised debate with her 2002 opponent, Suzanne Terrell, Landrieu snarled, "This is your last campaign."

This sort of toughness is necessary for political survival. "Democratic women in the South are presumed to be liberal feminists until they prove otherwise," says the Republican pollster Whit Ayres. The successful ones nip that impression in the bud. The Magnolias are frequently photographed brandishing guns. (Blanco went so far as to display her hunting permit during a debate.) Landrieu has been a vocal proponent of missile defense, earning her the moniker "Military Mary." And on social issues these women often part ways with their blue-state Democratic colleagues: Tenenbaum supports a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, and Lincoln and Landrieu both voted for the ban on so-called partial-birth abortion.

Not every stereotype is burdensome. Steel Magnolias benefit from the regional perception that women are more responsible with money. "Mommas do the bookkeeping in the South," says Rich Masters, a former aide to Landrieu. "And they are a lot tighter with the purse strings." Southern Democrats have been eager to convey that impression on the political stage. Lincoln was a founding member of the fiscally conservative House coalition known as the Blue Dogs, and Landrieu earned plaudits for saving Louisiana millions of dollars as state treasurer. Other aspirants are emulating their style: Alabama's lieutenant governor, Lucy Baxley, who first achieved renown as a tightfisted state treasurer, is being canvassed as a possible Democratic candidate for governor in part because her party's last governor, Don Siegelman, was recently indicted for fraud. Precisely because she is a woman, Baxley is perceived to be less corruptible.

In a sense it is odd that women could be the Democrats' salvation in the South. Dixie is hardly a bastion of female empowerment, political or otherwise: state legislatures in the region have among the lowest percentages of female members in the country. But by manipulating traditional perceptions of southern womanhood, the Magnolias have been able to win powerful statewide offices. And in doing so, they have accomplished something that continues to elude most Democratic candidates at the national level: they have convinced southerners that they share and even embody their values enough to deserve election.