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In South, Democrats have a problem

For decades, Southern Democrats could count on winning local and statewide offices, even though the voters in their states would often withhold support for the Democrat in presidential races.

No longer.

Despite efforts to distance themselves from President Obama, none of the Democratic Senate candidates in the South outdid his or her 2012 results on Tuesday. Democrats lost Senate races, sometimes by wide margins, in Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina, most of which were thought to be competitive for much of the year. They nearly lost in Virginia, where they were thought to be heavy favorites.

The inability of Southern Democrats to run well ahead of a deeply unpopular Obama raises questions about how an increasingly urban and culturally liberal national Democratic Party can compete in the staunchly conservative South. It raises serious doubts about whether a future Democratic presidential candidate, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, can count on faring better among Southern white voters than Obama, as many political analysts have assumed she might.

The Democrats running in the South this election season were not weak candidates. They had distinguished surnames, the benefits of incumbency, the occasional conservative position, and in some cases flawed opponents. They were often running in the states where Southern Democrats had the best records of outperforming the national party. Black turnout was not low, either, nearly reaching the same proportion of the electorate in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia as in 2012.

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Yet none of them — not Mary Landrieu, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Michelle Nunn, Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor, or Mark Warner — was able to run Tuesday more than a few points ahead of Obama’s historically poor performance among Southern white voters in 2012, based on county-level results and exit polls. There were some predominantly white counties in every state where the Senate candidates ran behind Obama.

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Perhaps most symbolic of the Democratic struggle was Nunn in Georgia. She was the strongest Democratic Senate nominee of the cycle by some accounts: a prodigious fund-raiser and the daughter of a popular former senator. She had never run for office and thus had no record for which she could be easily attacked. And her opponent, David Perdue, was a corporate executive who once said he was proud of his record of outsourcing.

Yet Nunn was defeated by nearly 8 percentage points — the same margin by which Obama lost to Mitt Romney in the state two years ago. She may have fared somewhat better than Obama among white voters, but not by much. She ran no better than Obama — or even behind him — in many of the state’s whitest counties.

In Arkansas, Mark Pryor, a two-term Senate incumbent whose father was also a senator, won just 39.5 percent of the vote — less than three points better than Obama. Arkansas was perhaps the Southern state that held on to its Democratic tradition the longest after the 1960s, but it is hard to detect any tradition left today. The state also voted overwhelmingly for a Republican governor.

There was no winner in Louisiana, where Senator Mary Landrieu and the Republican Bill Cassidy will go to a runoff. But Landrieu, who is widely expected to lose the runoff, ran less than two points ahead of Obama.

The national Democratic Party has fully embraced and even defined itself in terms of cultural liberalism. Generational and demographic change are likely to push the Democrats further in this direction, because younger and minority voters are strongly liberal on cultural issues.

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Those voters have helped the Democrats win the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. But without a broader base of support that lets Democrats win more votes in the South, it will be very hard for them to win back the House, and it may even be hard for them to win back the Senate.