The Permanent Campaign: Are Southern Democrats Finally Dead?

By / 12.5.2014

If readers will forgive me a personal observation: I have been hearing that the southern wing of the Democratic Party was dead or dying for almost exactly a half-century, dating from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Barry Goldwater’s breakthrough win in six Deep South states later that year.  Indeed, the death of the Southern Democracy is the Madame Bovary of political trends.

So maybe that great gettin’-up morning for Southern Republicans has finally dawned, as is being suggested in all the articles on Mary Landrieu (facing a likely trouncing in a Senate runoff this weekend) as “the last southern Democrat.” But a bit more precision is indicated by the decades of false prophecies on this subject.

For one thing, any definition of the South that excludes two former Confederate States, Virginia (with two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor) and Florida (with one Democratic senator) is questionable.  It actually would make more sense to include Kentucky (with a Democratic governor), Delaware (a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators), and Missouri (a Democratic governor), all states where, as we use to say in defining the memembership of the Southern Governors Association, “people used to own people.”  It’s also very arbitrary to exclude non-statewide officials like Rep. Steve Cohen of the very southern state of Tennessee; it seems the “last southern Democrat” narrative focuses only on a certain kind of southern Democrat.  In that connection, of course, it seems the only “southern Democrats” are white Democrats.

Yes, it was bad news for southern Democrats that Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan lost on November 4, and that Mary Landrieu got knocked into a runoff where all the odds favor the GOP.  It was a bad election for Democrats generally, you know.  But another round of obituaries for “southern Democrats” is for the moment premature.