Here’s How Democrats Can Keep Fighting to Win Seats in the Deep South
To win, they need candidates who run as real Democrats, not neo-Republicans. And to get a little lucky, too.
Just how big an earthquake was Doug Jones’ victory? It’s huge that Alabama will have a Democratic senator. And for fans of that whole “moral arc of the universe bending toward justice” thing, the fact that the man who prosecuted the perpetrators of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing beat a man who yearned for the unifying old days of slavery is beyond satisfying.
At the same time, let’s be honest. A different Republican, Luther Strange or Mo Brooks or anyone who wasn’t an accused pedophile, would have won the election by double digits. But Alabama Republicans didn’t choose those Republicans. They chose this Republican. They chose Roy Moore. And it isn’t crazy to think that other Republican voters in other red states may choose other Roy Moores.
And so the question: Can Democrats compete for Senate seats now in red states, even in the Deep South? They can and they should, but only if they can run as Jones ran: as a Democrat, and not as a neo-Republican who spends the whole campaign distancing him or herself from the national party.
That was perhaps the most gratifying thing about Jones’ win. He ran as a Democrat. A moderate Democrat, but a Democrat. He expressed support for the following: a higher minimum wage; a health care public option; the science of climate change; LGBT equality; border security but without any beautiful walls; criminal justice reform; and most strikingly of all in that state, abortion rights. “I’m not in favor of anything that’s going to infringe on a woman’s right, and her freedom to choose,” he told Chuck Todd in late September. And basically, he stuck to it. He played to the state on guns, but even there he spoke of the need to shore up background checks. He was not Republican-lite.
Three years ago, I wrote a column urging Democrats to forget about the South. It attracted some attention. Some of the rhetoric was a bit on the florid side. I wrote it in a foul mood the morning after Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu lost her re-election bid, even after she’d turned cartwheels to distance herself from her party and Barack Obama. I wrote that if Democratic candidates have to do that to win elective office—that is, all but promise their constituents that they won’t act like Democrats if elected—the party shouldn’t even bother and should spend its limited resources elsewhere.
But: If they can win the way Jones won, then that’s a whole different kettle of catfish. In that case, Democrats should by all means compete. Quick history lesson here. Today, or at least until Tuesday, we have thought of the South as a Democratic killing field, except for the majority-minority districts and perhaps the occasional district dominated by a college town. Right now, there are just seven white House members from 10 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy (I exclude Florida because from Orlando down, Florida is culturally different from the South). That’s out of 107 districts. And there are only two Democratic senators out of 20, and they’re both from Virginia, which is also culturally different (at least northern Virginia is, whence Mark Warner and Tim Kaine get the lion’s share of their votes).
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as the early George W. Bush years, Arkansas had two Democratic senators, Louisiana also two, North Carolina one, South Carolina one, and Georgia one. That wasn’t the 1960s. That was barely more than a decade ago. The wipeout happened in the late Bush and especially the early Obama years, because the Democrats did big-gummint health care and because well, you know, the president was, ah, from Hawaii.
Maybe now, with an unpopular Republican president who’s going to accomplish nothing between now and next November besides cutting rich people’s taxes and maybe being all but indicted and maybe starting a war or two, it’s conceivable that the Democrats can get back to something approaching that early-to-mid 2000s state of play over the course of the next two elections.
A few conditions have to be met. They need to find states where Trump is no better than 50-50, as the exit polls showed he was in Alabama. They need to find states that have decent-sized African-American and/or Latino populations. They need states with a major city or two, and at least one big university. They need some luck—lightning, of the kind that struck Moore when The Washington Post broke the child-molesting story in October. And of course they need good candidates.
As I look over the 2018 Senate map, one state sticks out like a thumb so sore it veritably throbs. That’s Texas, where Ted Cruz will be seeking re-election. Democratic House member Beto O’Rourke of El Paso is challenging him. He’s young and smart and literally looks like a Kennedy (that may be bad down there, I guess) and is bilingual and used to play in a rock band. He’s pretty liberal, and Cruz has already been attacking him along those lines. O’Rourke may need to tailor a couple of positions, but he should pay attention to how Jones drove his turnout and won.
Like Alabama, Texas hasn’t had a Democratic senator in a quarter-century. And right now, the race isn’t rated as close. But Cruz isn’t exactly the second coming of Roger Staubach in popularity terms. From just two months ago: He was at 38 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove (including 31 percent who disapprove strongly). And Mitch McConnell would probably be just as happy to get Cruz out of his life. Worth keeping an eye on.
So perhaps all is not lost below the Mason-Dixon. Maybe Tuesday night will prove to be the night Ol’ Dixie stopped driving us down.