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Landrieu’s last stand: why Deep South white Democrats are vanishing

If Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana loses her runoff election on Saturday, there will be no more white Democrats from the Deep South in the Senate. Racial polarization of the two main parties has never been more stark. 

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    Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana greets diners at Betsy's Pancake House on Election Day in New Orleans last month. She faces a runoff Saturday.
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Come Saturday, the sweep is likely to be complete. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana is nearly certain to lose her runoff election against Republican challenger Bill Cassidy. In the Deep South, that will mean no more Democrats in the US Senate, a governor’s office, or the majority in a state legislature.

This shift to deep red in the Deep South has been decades in the making. And it was only a matter of time before Louisiana was going to shift, too, analysts say. Still, one statistic stood out in Senator Landrieu’s vote totals on Election Day last month: She got only 18 percent of the white vote, down from 33 percent just six years ago.

Why the precipitous decline? And what does it signal for Democrats’ future chances in the South?

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To the first question, experts on Southern policies have a short answer: President Obama. He is deeply unpopular in Louisiana and across the South, making it extremely difficult for a senator who has voted for his policies the vast majority of the time to survive. All the Democratic Senate incumbents in red states lost on Election Day, except for Landrieu (who came in first at 42 percent, well below the majority needed to avert a runoff). Even Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, now a purple state, nearly lost.

The longer answer to why the bottom fell out of Landrieu’s white vote goes to larger regional trends. White Southerners have been moving to the GOP for decades, starting with the civil rights era of the 1960s. Social issues – abortion, gay rights, guns – still loom large in the South, and culturally, the national Democratic Party is out of sync with most white voters there.

“White Louisiana voters are really just catching up to where white voters in Mississippi and Alabama were a decade or so ago,” says Michael Henderson, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “This has a lot less to do with Landrieu than with the long transition in Louisiana’s political landscape.”

Louisiana’s march to red has been slow, in part because of its large Catholic vote – about a quarter of the state’s population, larger than in other Deep South states.

“The attachment to New Deal economics persisted longer among Catholic voters” in Louisiana, says Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans. “They switched over to the social-issues agenda – abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, education vouchers – a bit later than the largely Evangelical Protestant white vote in many of these other Deep South states.”

Landrieu is Catholic and calls herself pro-life, which has helped her in the past. But in 2014, her support for the Affordable Care Act hurt her, beyond the general distaste for the law in her state. The law’s provision for contraception and a widespread belief that it covers abortion were a negative among Catholic voters.

Another element of Obama’s record that has hurt Landrieu is his approach to energy, the economic engine of Louisiana. After the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama suspended oil drilling there for six months. He has also delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.  

Working to Landrieu’s benefit is Louisiana’s large black population – 32 percent of the state, second only to Mississippi as a percentage. The vast majority vote Democratic. But on Saturday, there likely are not enough additional black votes to make up for the vastly reduced white Democratic vote.

Many African-Americans left Louisiana because of hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never came back. In 2008, the last time Landrieu won reelection, it was the year of Obama, and the massive black turnout he inspired also boosted Landrieu to victory on Election Day.

“She got plenty of black votes to offset the fact that, over time, white Louisianans who identify as Democratic are either changing [party] or dying,” says Mr. Brox. And that process of white political transition is accelerating. “Six years later, there was no African-American running for president to turn out black votes. The numbers are just catching up with her.”

Indeed, while Landrieu has won election to the Senate three times, she has never won big. Her victory in 2008 was her biggest, at just 52 percent.

One Southern state that already saw Democrats swept out of statewide office this cycle was Arkansas. Both the governor’s and Senate races went Republican – including the defeat of incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D), who, like Landrieu, brought a family brand name to the race.

“The Clintons helped hold back the shift in Arkansas, much as Jimmy Carter held it back in Georgia,” says Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

In addition, Arkansas has a big population of Evangelical white Christians. “That’s the most anti-Democratic group across the South,” says Mr. Black. “They don’t see President Obama advancing their interests. They see a national Democratic Party as hostile or indifferent to them.”

Arkansas doesn’t have a big black population, relatively speaking. So the shift there is not about the politics of racial mobilization, it’s about cultural conservatism.

But across much of the South, home to some of the nation’s largest black populations, “racial bifurcation” is the name of the game. Blacks vote largely Democratic, whites vote largely Republican. After the loss of Rep. John Barrow (D) of Georgia on Nov. 4, there will be no white Democrats representing the Deep South in the House.

One bright spot for Democrats on Election Day was the victory of Gwen Graham in Florida, who beat incumbent Rep. Steve Southerland (R). The district includes the state capital of Tallahassee, also home to Florida State University, so even though it’s in the Florida Panhandle, it’s not typical Deep South.

And what about the future? Is it game over for Democrats in the South? Not necessarily. Nine of the 10 states with the fastest growing Hispanic populations are in the South, and Hispanics tend to vote Democratic. North Carolina, which voted for Obama in 2008 but not 2012, and voted out Sen. Kay Hagan (D) on Election Day, still holds potential for Democrats. The party has also long had its sights on Texas and Georgia, and even though Democratic candidates failed there on Nov. 4, both the rise of minority populations and in-migration of Northerners give Democrats hope that both states can at least become purple battlegrounds someday.

The question is, when. Curtis Wilkie, a former reporter for The Boston Globe and Mississippi native, paints a dire picture.

“I can’t remember it being any gloomier for Democrats in the South than it is today,” Mr. Wilkie, now a scholar at the University of Mississippi, told CNN. “The party has been demonized by Republicans. It’s very bleak. I just don’t see anything good for them on the horizon.”

On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee announced a task force aimed at improving party performance, after the drubbing of 2014. But chances are, the real task of party rebuilding will fall to its 2016 presidential nominee, perhaps former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At one time, she was closely associated with the centrist wing of the party, alongside her husband, former President Clinton.

Whether she can succeed may depend on the policies she advocates.  “Right now,” says Black, “she’s very closely identified with the Obama administration, having been a part of it.” 

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