Blue Dog Blues: the Future of Democrats in the American South

On December 12, 2017, Doug Jones shocked the political world by becoming Alabama’s first Democratic Senator since 1996. After a race that held the world’s attention – and a presidential election that left Democrats reeling – Jones’ win came as an unexpected reversal of fortune for a beleaguered Democratic Party. Months before, the telegenic young businessman Jon Ossoff came tantalizingly close to winning Tom Price’s (the former HHS secretary) former seat in a solidly conservative Atlanta suburb. With 23 million dollars in his campaign chest, Ossoff raised more money than any congressional candidate in history. The previous year, Democrat John Bel Edwards defied the odds to win victory in deep red Louisiana, beating out two term Senator David Vitter in one of the year’s most watched gubernatorial races. Democrats across the nation wondered: was this the beginning of a Southern resurgence? Could Dixie – the home of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – return to Democratic control? And if so, what strategy would best ensure Democratic victory in the culturally conservative and big government-allergic heartland of Donald Trump’s coalition?

While these underdog campaigns have provided liberals with inspiration, it’s difficult to say if they’re part of a larger political trend. Take the most recent example of the Alabama election. Much has been written about the role of African Americans and disaffected evangelicals in the flipping of Jeff Sessions’ home state. It’s unlikely, however, that these factors would have made a difference if it weren’t for Roy Moore’s pre-existing sex scandal. Had it not been for the horrifying revelations of Moore’s behavior with underage girls, Jones would likely have performed well but still fallen short of a majority. In short, his victory can likely be considered a political fluke.

Likewise, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards’ 2015 win was the result of luck, not underlying shifts in the South’s political landscape. The Republican nomination of scandal-plagued Senator David Vitter drove socially conservative evangelicals into the hands of Edwards, a pro-life, pro-gun moderate who appealed to traditionally Republican constituencies. This and the endorsement of outgoing Republican Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne propelled Edwards to an otherwise unlikely triumph over one of the most un-electable Republicans in the country.

The campaign of Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District is a far more complicated case. Unlike Edwards or Jones, Ossoff didn’t face a scandal-plagued opponent or succeed in swaying religious conservatives. Instead, he faced the task of swinging a wealthy, white, suburban district represented for years by a conservative Republican congressman. By all accounts, Ossoff ran a spectacular campaign. No Democrat had previously come close to winning the Sixth District’s solidly Republican seat. Yet in spite of money, national recognition, and unprecedented Democratic turnout, Ossoff still failed to win the seat. The fact that most Democrats — plus a fair number of Republicans — voted for Ossoff indicates there was nothing wrong with his strategy: he simply didn’t have enough votes. Even candidates like Ossoff can be hampered by simple numerical disadvantage. Moreover, Ossoff’s run came at the peak of anti-Trump protest activity and in the chaos of a special election — special circumstances unlikely to be repeated by later candidates.

Ultimately, Edwards, Jones, and Ossoff are the products of unique political circumstances rather than the heralds of a left-wing southern Resistance. Based on these examples, a Democratic comeback in the South is unlikely.

Some Democrats would claim that increased African American turnout and a growing Hispanic population can turn patches of the South blue, particularly in urban areas. While growing minority participation has offset Republican gains —  particularly in states like Georgia — it’s simply not enough to flip many districts, as seen in the Ossoff election. Moreover, long term growth in minority populations is unlikely to lead to substantive short-term change — i.e., capturing House seats during the 2018 midterms. Lastly, as Hispanic immigrants assimilate into American society, increasing numbers of them are self-identifying as white — a sign that many Latinos may be absorbed into the South’s largely Republican general population.

Other Democrats argue that targeting white voters is a possible solution. Some, like Ossoff, would prefer concentrating on wealthier Republicans disaffected by the excesses of Donald Trump. Others, like former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, emphasize winning over rural whites negatively affected by free trade policies. Still, neither Kander nor Ossoff is in office today — despite the fact that both ran close races and outperformed Hillary Clinton. While a few Blue Dog Democrats might continue to represent certain isolated districts, the last Presidential election suggests that the South is too far gone for the likes of Kander and Ossoff.

Many Democrats in favor of this strategy emphasize the specific targeting of moderate Republicans disillusioned with the Trump Administration. If Obama could turn many regions red, they reason, then Trump’s unpopularity could shift some southern Republicans back towards liberalism. The problem with this line of argument is that it is incomplete. Yes, Jon Ossoff improved Democratic performance by eight percentage points in a district that went overwhelmingly for Trump. But such gains made among moderate suburban Republicans are likely to be offset by the continuing collapse of Democrats throughout Southern state legislatures. In 2016 alone, Republicans gained five state houses and two state senate chambers, seizing control of the Kentucky legislature from Democrats. Trump’s popularity in rural areas still featuring “Blue Dog” Democrats is likely to continue this trend of Democratic loss, making urban gains at best irrelevant.  

In the end, a “New Blue” South is unlikely to materialize at any point in the near future. Democrats wishing for a 2020 victory would do well to concentrate their efforts in Michigan and Ohio, where Donald Trump’s coalition has led many traditionally liberal working class voters away from the Democratic fold. There is, of course, the question of why the South abandoned Democrats in the first place. But that is the subject for a different essay.