When Democratic strategists scratch their pointy heads, searching for places where their party might pick up House seats in November, they do not typically look to the South. For Democrats, after all, the South has for decades been a region not of opportunities but of slow-motion disasters. The Republican Revolution came from thereabouts. So did Bob Barr. Tom DeLay is from the South. Newt Gingrich is from the South. Now, California--there's a winner, a state where new people register Democrat practically every minute, a golden land of opportunity where photogenic Latinas (like Congresswoman Lorretta Sanchez) can knock off blustery right-wingers (like former Congressman Bob Dornan) on Ronald Reagan's old redoubt (Orange County). In other words, such strategists might say, screw the South.
Mike Taylor would rather they didn't. In 1998 Taylor ran against Representative Robin Hayes, an entrenched Republican incumbent, in North Carolina's eighth district. "I had never run before," recalls Taylor. "I was running against one of the best-funded, best-organized politicians in North Carolina. I got outspent by over four to one. The race was totally written off, and I was pretty much totally ignored. They expected it to be a two-to-one blowout." But Taylor took 48 percent of the vote to Hayes's bare 51 percent majority--one of the closest races in the country. "Two days after the election," says Taylor, "I got calls from the Democratic leadership, and they said, 'We blew it.'"
Not this time. In the past year, House Minority Whip David Bonior and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt have both held fundraisers for Taylor, helping him amass a sizable war chest. The local Democratic and labor leadership have gotten behind him, as has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which will pour roughly $624,000 into the race between now and election day. In a few weeks, Taylor and Hayes will again go to the polls--and this year, the Democrat might actually win.
Taylor isn't alone. For the first time since the 1970s, Democrats may actually win back seats in the South--even in the deep South, and even against well-financed incumbents like Hayes. In Alabama political semi-novice Marsha Folsom (the wife of former Governor Jim Folsom, Jr.) has raised as much cash as Representative Bob Aderholt and is locked in a tight race. Democrat Mike Ross stands a good chance of knocking off Representative Jay Dickey, a four-term Republican from Bill Clinton's home district in Arkansas. Kentucky's Representative Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, and Scotty Baesler, a former Democratic congressman, are in a dead heat. In Florida, a state more politically and demographically balanced than most of the South, Democrats like Elaine Bloom and Linda Chapin are well ahead of their Republican opponents.
All in all, predicts Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report, a Democratic pick-up of four or more seats--roughly half of what the party needs to retake the House--is "a reasonable expectation." But what's even more striking is that these southern Democrats are winning back voters with national Democratic themes.
For instance, Al Gore likes to call his platform an "agenda for America's working families." Folsom calls hers "Marsha Folsom's agenda for working families." Mike Taylor "supports smaller class sizes, more teachers, increased school construction, and a return of values and discipline to our classrooms so teachers can teach and children can learn"--all of which have been championed, often in the exact same words, by Gore. And where Gore boasts that he's "stood up to the big drug companies, the big oil companies, the insurance companies, and the HMOs," Mike Ross reminds voters that "in the State Capitol, I took on the insurance companies to make rural health care more affordable." Likewise, Georgia candidate Jim Marshall promises to "keep fighting for you against the drug companies, the big insurance companies, the HMOs, and anyone else who isn't doing right by working families." (Kentucky's Baesler, no slouch in this department, criticizes the "huge insurance and drug companies," as opposed to the merely big ones.)
Nor is the similarity merely rhetorical. Prescription drug benefits for the elderly are a major issue in nearly all the campaigns, just as in the presidential race between Gore and George W. Bush. So are saving Social Security (by putting more money into it), spending more on public schools, passing a patients' bill of rights, and even campaign finance reform.
One key reason for the turnaround is that these candidates--like southern Democrats generally--are no longer hobbled by the single biggest cause of Democratic decline in the South: race. For decades after the civil rights era, southern Republicans successfully exploited white racial fears to splinter the kinds of biracial coalitions that elected Democrats in other parts of the country--a strategy perfectly suited to the South, where most states have large black populations (22 percent in North Carolina, 25 percent in Alabama, and 16 percent in Arkansas, to take three examples). None of the Republican incumbents challenged this year have resorted to Jesse Helms-style wedge campaigns, and it's not likely it would work if they did. (In 1998 several Republicans tried, but with disastrous results.) Most of the Democratic challengers are drawing significant biracial support, as did the four Democrats currently residing in Alabama's, Georgia's, Mississippi's, and South Carolina's governor's mansions. In almost every case, the Democrats have been bleeding white votes from Republican incumbents while maintaining or boosting black turnout.
That's not to say they've all become southern-fried Ted Kennedys. None of the candidates is outspokenly liberal on race; it's just that race, as a political issue, isn't on the table. Folsom supports both increased public school spending and student-led prayer at school functions. Taylor, the son of a southern Baptist preacher and the grandson of Confederate Army veterans, is pro-life, is endorsed by the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, and considers himself--as he puts it--"a defender of the Second Amendment." But you won't hear much about it on the campaign trail (or in the campaign literature, for that matter). "I'm proud to be a southerner," says Taylor. "But southerners are no different than other Americans in that they are mostly working families. They want good education for their children; they want a secure retirement."
Of course, Gore, too, was once a southern Democrat. He, too, once ran for Congress with relatively conservative social views. And as Republicans and Bill Bradley often carped during the first few months of the presidential campaign, Congressman Gore opposed federal funding for abortion, received "A" ratings from the National Rifle Association, and opposed gay rights. (Gore, like his father, Al Gore, Sr., was quite liberal on racial issues.) Though Gore moved to the left on guns, abortion, tobacco, and gay rights as he rose to prominence as a national Democrat, his current attacks on the big interests echo another regional tradition: southern populism, particularly the kind practiced by his father. And on issues like crime, welfare, and deficit reduction, Gore and Bill Clinton have themselves moved their party to the right of the national party and, not coincidentally, closer to the southern view of things.
Thus it's hard to tell whether southern Democrats are becoming more like national Democrats, or vice versa. Some observers, like Hastings Wyman and the University of North Carolina's Ferrel Guillory, split the difference: The two groups, they say, are undergoing a "convergence." On the one hand, immigration and suburbanization have made the South more demographically similar to the rest of the country while economic growth and white acceptance of black civil rights have lessened racial tension; on the other hand, the Democratic Party has itself become more centrist during the Clinton-Gore years.
But what are they converging on? Support for the death penalty may have made Clinton and Gore more credible as an early 1990s Democratic White House ticket. And opposition to abortion may make Folsom, Ross, Taylor, and the rest credible among conservative southern voters. But these moves may best be seen as defensive, while it's the harnessing of traditional Democratic themes that has actually advanced these campaigns. Referring to Gore's "working families" campaign as "populism," after all, is a little imprecise. Unlike a true southern populist's agenda, Gore's tirades against "big interests" aren't fueled by any deep hostility toward big business; Gore's solutions, and those of Democratic challengers in the South, are basically regulatory, not root-and-branch attacks on the corporate order.
More significantly, the southerners' proposals for public schools, Social Security, and Medicare are deeply liberal and traditionally Democratic in their premise: that government can and should play a large, even fundamental role in Americans' daily lives. Today these are called pocketbook issues or, as Taylor likes to say, "kitchen table" issues. But in another, more innocent age, these kinds of issues fell under a different rubric: class. As Gore has discovered, there is not only more cross-regional solidarity than most Republicans and a lot of Democrats realize, but perhaps more interracial solidarity than the South has ever enjoyed. In other words, class is beginning to trump race for perhaps the first time in southern history. ¤