Why white Democrats are so rare in the South

There are no white Democrats from the Deep South in the US Congress, and southern state legislatures are quickly going the same way. There's only white Democrat left in the Alabama Senate,

(AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)
In May 17, 2013, members of the Alabama Democratic Caucus, from left: Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, and Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, talk with reporters at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala. The 74-year-old Clayton pharmacist could soon have another title, the only white Democrat remaining in the Alabama Senate. The result is that Democrats in the Alabama Legislature are almost entirely black. And white legislators are almost entirely Republican.

Alabama State Sen. Billy Beasley says it was the highest of compliments when a friend recently called him a "true Democrat."

The 74-year-old pharmacist also might soon be the only white Democrat left in the Alabama Senate, unless 30-year veteran Sen. Roger Bedford can make up a 60-vote deficit in an anticipated election recount.

White, Deep South Democrats have been on the decline for years, and none remain in Congress after Rep. John Barrow of Georgia was defeated Nov. 4. Their demise was perhaps nowhere more apparent than at the Alabama Statehouse, where the number of white Democrats in the 140-member legislature was cut in half from 14 to 7 on Election Day.

"They are not extinct. You can find some examples, but you really almost need a magnifying glass to find the Caucasian Democratic candidate," Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University, said.

Democrats dominated the so-called Solid South from Reconstruction to the middle of the twentieth century.

The realignment began with Southerners' opposition to the Civil Rights Act 1964. What followed was a Goldwater-wave of several Southern states voting for Republicans' presidential nominee for the first time. It was sped along with the popularity of President Ronald Reagan and Southerners' identification with the GOP's stances on issues from abortion to guns.

"Democrats, when they were winning, would often say to voters, we're not like those national Democrats. But there was no alternative," said Natalie Davis, a political scientist and pollster at Birmingham-Southern College.

Southern voters identify themselves with the Republican Party on issues across the board, from education and social issues to disdain for President Barack Obama's signature health care law, said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead.

"The core of the Democratic Party has gotten more liberal, said Sen. Gerald Dial, a Lineville legislator who switched to the Republican Party.

Dial represented his east Alabama district as a Democrat for 20 years before switching to the GOP in 2010. He said the Republican Party better reflected the views of people in his district, which sweeps through east Alabama's farms and textile mills.

"Our communities are just more conservative, very patriotic, very religious oriented - I guess we've got more churches, I know I have a lot in my district. Add to that the philosophy of smaller government and low taxes," Dial said.

Beasley said Republicans have successfully made state elections about national issues that legislators can't do anything about. "They ran against Obama. They ran against (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi and (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid. Those are national figures," Beasley said.

He said state politicians should be talking about health care, education and jobs.

Even as white Southerners began voting Republican in presidential and statewide races, statehouses had remained a Democratic stronghold until recently. Republicans won their first GOP majority since Reconstruction in 2010. More Democrats abandoned their party to be part of the new ruling majority.

The fall of white Democrats has resulted in parties that have become increasingly divided along party lines.

"Now we've got down to a situation where you have blacks in the Democratic Party in the Legislature, at least in the Senate, and you have whites in the Republican Party. What that does it take us one step closer to the past, and that's not good in my point of view," said Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, who is black.

Sanders said the result is that African-American voters feel the sting. The percentage of black legislators is roughly proportionate to the general population. But their party's dwindling numbers means fewer opportunities for minority legislators to exert influence, he said.

Beasley likely survived because he represents a district that is 60 percent black, as African-Americans are a reliably Democratic voting bloc.

Democrats say they see hope for regaining ground in the region that spawned Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Part of the answer is getting beyond the presidency of Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular among white voters in the South, said John Anzalone, an Alabama-based pollster and consultant. Anzalone has worked from Democrats ranging from President Barack Obama to Jason Carter, the grandson of Jimmy Carter who unsuccessfully ran this year for Georgia governor.

"There are a lot of non-college-educated, white Southern voters that agree with Democrats on a lot of issues like the minimum wage and access to health care, as long as you don't call it Obamacare ," Anzalone said.

The GOP dominance means primary battles push some candidates further to the right, he said, which could provide an opening for Democrats if Republicans become even more conservative than their voting base.

But as Democrats look for ways to regain white voters, Republicans are trying to court black voters.

Several black Republicans ran for office this year, though all lost. Still, it's likely an African-American Republican will be elected in the near future, predicted Phillip Brown, chairman of the Alabama Republican Minority Party. Brown ran for a seat on the state utility regulatory board and lost.

"We overcame a milestone this year, and that was to actually have a substantial number of minorities run under the banner of the Republican Party," Brown said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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