Is the Southern Strategy Dead?

In less than two weeks, we may well see the election in which the Southern Strategy -- the strategic doctrine that has underpinned the rise of the Republican Party over the past four decades -- dies an inglorious death. Since 1968, Republicans have exploited the racial and cultural resentments of Southern whites brilliantly. Their control of the White House for 24 of the last 40 years, and of Congress from 1994 through 2006, was rooted in the overwhelming support they won from Southern whites.

The strategy was premised on the South's distinct identity -- that it was home to a more rural, less educated, more militaristic, more churchgoing, less tolerant, more racist white population than the nation's other regions. It has worked like a charm in areas where Southern backwardness has been immutable. The problem for the GOP is that modernity, in the form of internal development, greater racial diversity, and migration from -- oh, the horror -- the North, has finally begun to alter the political identity of key Southern states.

Clearly, that's what has happened to Virginia, in which the southward creep of an increasingly cosmopolitan Washington, D.C. into the Virginia burbs (both sub- and ex-) has altered the state's racial and cultural make-up. Since 2000, Republicans have fared well in what Sarah Palin termed the "real Virginia," only to see their numbers dwarfed by the successively bigger margins racked up by such Democrats as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb in the northern part of the state.

The thought of Virginia, which has not gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, casting its electoral votes for Barack Obama is mind-boggling enough. But North Carolina? Could a black presidential candidate carry a southern state that hasn't had a northern metropolis disrupt its demographics? Could a relatively unknown Democratic senate candidate unseat a nationally known Republican incumbent?

Quite possibly.

Barack Obama is running no worse than even with John McCain in North Carolina, while State Senator Kay Hagan -- an obscure public figure in-state as well as out -- has opened a small but persistent lead over incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole. In the race to succeed outgoing Democratic Governor Mike Easley, Democratic Lt. Governor Bev Perdue, weighed down by her links to an increasingly unpopular Easley, has been trailing Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a moderate Republican, though in recent polls she seems to have closed that gap. As well, veteran GOP Congressman Robin Hayes, heir to the Cannon Mills fortune, has fallen behind textile worker-turned-schoolteacher Larry Kissell in a hotly contested House race.

At first glance, a Hagan victory, should she win, looks less the result of profound changes in North Carolina's political culture, and Dole's surprising political ineptitude, and more the result of a brilliant campaign the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) has waged on her behalf. A figure on the national stage for decades, Dole has failed to maintain the level of constituent services for which her predecessor, Jesse Helms, was known for across the state. Worse yet, she's been absent from the state, and from its political consciousness, for long periods of time. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Dole spent just 13 days in state during 2006, a year in which, as chair of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, Dole was fundraising for Senate candidates across the country.

The DSCC has waged an anti-Dole campaign that is a model of its kind. One of its ads, that ran for weeks on the state's TV stations, showed two geezers rocking on a porch. "I heard she's 93," the first geezer begins. "No, she's 92," the other insists -- the first number refers to Dole's ranking in one study of the effectiveness of the 100 U.S. senators, the second to the percentage of votes where she sided with President Bush. But both convey the sense that Dole, who is 72, is approaching geezerhood herself. ("What happened to the Elizabeth Dole I knew" the first geezer asks as the ad concludes. "Guess she's not a go-getter like we are," the second replies.) Another ad in a similar vein, funded by a labor-backed 527, notes that Dole moved away from North Carolina 43 years ago; black and white images of 1965 North Carolina, with old cars and low-tech textile mills, fill the screen.

The rocking chair ad:

The DSCC has invested more money in the North Carolina contest than any other race; as of October 5, it had spent more than $4 million on advertising, with a good deal more to come. After failing to recruit more prominent Democrats, such as Easley or former Governor Jim Hunt, to run against Dole, the organization had to come up with funding that the relatively obscure Hagan couldn't raise on her own. The ads and the newspaper coverage of Dole's absences from the state have taken their toll: Earlier this month, Dole's approval rating, 42 percent, lagged her disapproval rating by 7 points.

The governor's race has a dynamic of its own as well. Perdue has several problems -- above all, the decline in Easley's popularity. After six years of widespread voter approval, Easley's last two years have been marred by scandals or the appearance thereof -- a Parisian visit where taxpayers picked up the tab for a chauffeured Mercedes, and an 88 percent raise tendered to Easley's wife for her University of North Carolina administrative job. Every ad that Republican McCrory runs links Perdue to "the culture of corruption" that pervades Raleigh, the state capital.

One ad dealing with a garbage contract shows piles of trash bags while alleging that Perdue "recycles the culture of corruption." Perdue, unable to tout her long experience in state government, has aired ads with barely discernible themes. McCrory is the beneficiary as well of Perdue's inability to heal a rift with her main primary opponent, Democratic State Treasurer Richard Moore. Until the last couple of weeks, Perdue had been trailing McCrory in the polls. Democratic consultants to whom I spoke disparaged her campaign while acknowledging the difficulty of being the candidate of continuity in a change election.

The recycle ad:

Yet in the past two weeks, several polls have shown Perdue catching up with McCrory. "If she wins," one of the consultants says, "she can thank Obama."

For, whatever the merits and flaws of their campaigns, both Hagan and Perdue are beneficiaries of the remarkable campaign that Obama has run in North Carolina -- remarkable because it accelerated the political evolution of a state that had been trending toward modernity and away from Southerness for several decades.

Obama's operation in North Carolina, like his operation in so many states, has exceeded anything North Carolina has ever seen. He has 45 offices across the state. This year, in-state Democratic registration has increased by 245,305 voters -- a third of whom are black -- while Republican registrations have risen by just 46,748. Nor are Obama's legions the only new force on the ground. In May, the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC), affiliated with SEIU, brought a major union presence to a state that has always ranked in the bottom five in level of workforce unionization. "For the first time, our members can leverage national union resources in a campaign," says SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope. Not only has the union donated $1 million to state campaigns, but 50 fulltime SEIU staffers have come to the state to run a voter mobilization program, and many staffers from the national Change to Win unions are spending the final weeks of the campaign in North Carolina -- the first time the state has had an infusion of union political activism on this scale. "This puts counties into play where labor has never been before," says national Change to Win Executive Director Chris Chafe, a longtime North Carolina resident. (SEANC has also won a pledge from Hagan that she'll support the Employee Free Choice Act if she's elected.)

If something new is being born, something old is also dying. "The old Helms ground operation has faded away," says Chafe. But both are functions of the changing nature of the state itself. "Over the past decade," says Elon University political science professor Hunter Bacot, who directs the Elon Poll (North Carolina's one in-state poll), "more people here lived in urban rather than rural areas, for the first time. As the textile industry has vanished from rural east Carolina and furniture from the west, people have been moving to the cities, where the jobs are. And people have been moving from out of state to the Research Triangle around Raleigh and Durham, and to the banking industry in Charlotte. The greatest growth came in the '90s."

The jobs they were coming to were high-skill, high-tech and high-pay. North Carolina had an aggressive industrial policy, drawing pharmaceutical, semiconductor, and financial companies from around the nation. The state population grew by 51 percent between 1980 and 2006. And the new professionals had no affinity for the low-road politics of Helms. By themselves, they didn't constitute a critical mass for a new, more progressive politics. But with the Obama campaign registering record numbers of African Americans and young people, a new Democratic Party, larger in size and no longer so parochial in its beliefs, has been created. Like Virginia, North Carolina simply isn't as Southern as it used to be.

For Republicans, who've relied for 40 years on their Southern strategy, a more devastating development is hard to imagine.

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