It was three years ago last week that the New York Times published a chart that was hard to forget. In the first half of the 20th century, Democratic control over governors’ mansions, senators’ seats, and state legislative bodies in the South was literally 100%. Then, as the Times’ piece showed, after the civil-rights era transformed politics in the region, Democratic power in the South slipped.
By this point in 2014, the percentage of governors’ mansions, senators’ seats, and state legislative bodies held by Democrats in the South – excluding Florida and Virginia – was literally 0%.
This came to mind this morning reading the Washington Post’s piece from Aaron Blake about Sen.-elect Doug Jones’s (D) victory in Alabama yesterday – which offered at least some evidence that his party has a “pulse in the Deep South.”
To be clear: This is a stunning result – no matter what preceded it. Before Tuesday, a Democrat had not won a Senate seat in Alabama in nearly three decades. The party is practically extinct in the Deep South and has been for a few years now, with its gains there gradually fading during the Obama presidency. Racial polarization has made the region practically impenetrable for the blue team, which basically holds majority-black congressional districts and nothing else.
I wouldn’t say this ushers in a Democratic revival, by any means – absent the allegations against Moore, Jones very likely would have lost – but the fact that Democrats could even capitalize on the right opportunity in a tough region has to warm the hearts of party officials and supporters.
Sure, this was just one race, and it’d be foolish to suggest Jones’ win is evidence of a region in the midst of a dramatic transformation. It’s not. The South is easily the Republican Party’s strongest part of the country, and that won’t change anytime soon.
But it’s also true that the big red wall in the South now features some blue cracks.
Yesterday, obviously, Jones pulled off an improbable victory in Alabama. But let’s not forget that last month in Virginia, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) won with surprising ease, as part of an extraordinary number of wins for Democrats in the commonwealth, up and down the ballot.
Last year, only one incumbent governor lost his or her re-election campaign, and it was Republican Pat McCrory in North Carolina. A year earlier, few thought Democrats could prevail in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race, until John Bel Edwards won – by double digits.
Even earlier this year, Democrats may have come up short in congressional special elections in Georgia and South Carolina, but in both instances, the Democratic candidates came surprisingly close to pulling off shocking upsets in ruby-red districts, and forced Republicans to scramble to hold onto seats the GOP expected to win easily.
I don’t imagine anyone will seriously characterize the South as filled with competitive battlegrounds anytime soon, but there’s some compelling evidence that Democrats are considerably better off in the region than they were just a few years ago.