NOTE: This column, which draws heavily on a piece posted last week, is published here to serve as the electronic version of today’s AJC column and to allow newspaper readers to comment if the wish.
The 2010 midterms were a disaster for Democrats almost everywhere, but the carnage was particularly high here in the South.
Take Georgia. Every Democrat running statewide lost by double digits, and Republicans won historic margins in both the state House and Senate. The humiliation got even worse after the election, when nine legislators elected as Democrats — including the Democratic House caucus chair — switched parties.
The performance was so dismal that Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine in Washington, believes the Democrats should write off the South as a lost cause.
“It’s not a tough call,” Schmitt wrote last week. “… The divorce is final. And largely for the good, as congressional Democrats will no longer have to twist their policies beyond recognition to accommodate Southern Democrats who are doomed anyway.”
But in politics, nothing is final. In fact, if you build a political strategy on the idea that tomorrow will be like yesterday, you guarantee failure.
As Schmitt notes, Barack Obama carried both Virginia and North Carolina in 2008. He lost here in Georgia by just five points. When you’re trying to cobble together an electoral majority every four years, it would be foolhardy to write off such states as ungettable. The Republicans, you might recall, were considered finished in the Northeast until — surprise!! — Massachusetts elected a Republican to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate.
Purely as a matter of strategy, if the South is considered Republican territory, Democrats should make them defend it. It’s better to take the offense on the other guy’s soil than to fight defensively on your own. And in terms of electoral college math, if you lose an Ohio, you’ll want a shot at Virginia.
Schmitt argues that instead, Democrats ought to focus on western states such as Nevada and Colorado. Certainly, parts of the Mountain West offer fertile territory. In ‘08, Obama carried Colorado by eight points, New Mexico by 16 and Nevada by 13. Yet that performance demonstrates again just how quickly things can change in politics.
In 2004, John Kerry took none of those three states. Prior to 2008, Republicans had carried Colorado in nine of the previous 10 presidential elections, and the state was assumed to be trending red. And as to fertile ground, look elsewhere around the Mountain West: In ‘08, John McCain carried Idaho by 25 points, Wyoming by 33, Utah by 27, Arizona by nine — margins equal to or considerably better than he produced here in the South.
But there’s a more important issue: When Schmitt advocates abandoning the South, he’s really making an elitist argument in favor of giving up on the white working class. And that has serious implications for both the country and the party.
A Democratic Party that no longer tries to compete in the South also handicaps itself in non-Southern states where the white working class remains numerous. In attitude, needs and cultural identity, the white working class of Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and the mountain states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado aren’t much different from their Southern peers.
Abandon the South, and you abandon them as well.
On a range of issues from health care to Social Security to taxation, Democratic policies favor the working class and — if explained well — ought to make the party competitive. But a Democratic Party that gives up the argument — and in effect also casts the Southern black voter adrift to fend for himself — abandons its legacy and limits its future.
– Jay Bookman