The Midterm Elections in the South: Another Democratic Slide?

By Allan J. Lichtman

Vol. 20, No. 3, 1998 pp. 4-5

The notion that Bill Clinton saved the Democratic party by moving it from the left to the center of the political spectrum is another convenient theory exploded by inconvenient facts. During the Clinton years Democrats have suffered the worst drubbing at the polls since World War I.

Democrats have lost control of both houses of Congress and of numerous state house and senate chambers. Since 1990, the number of Democratic governors has declined from twenty-nine to sixteen. Of the ten largest states, only Florida and North Carolina still have Democratic governors.

Nowhere has the decline of the Democratic party been more evident than in the once solidly Democratic South. Today, Democrats control a minority of U.S. House and Senate seats and governors' mansions in the South.

There is little chance that Democrats will reverse the Republican tide in the South in the midterm elections of 1998. Rather, these elections will likely bring additional Democratic losses in the South and elsewhere, with profound implications for the 2000 Census, the post-Census redistricting, and policies that affect U.S. minority groups.

Given that Democrats in the South are as far or farther behind Republicans in U.S. Senate seats and governorships as in U.S. House seats, Democratic losses in the South cannot be attributed to the creation of majority-minority House districts following the Census of 1990. The Democrats' Southern problem is neither caused by nor subject to remedy by redistricting. Rather, it reflects a huge decline in votes cast for Democratic candidates.

In most Southern states there are no longer enough Democratic votes to create majorities for Democratic statewide candidates or Democratic congressional delegations. In Georgia, for example, the Democratic share of votes cast in congressional races fell from 61.3 percent in 1990 to 45.5 percent in 1994. In North Carolina, the Democratic share fell from 54.7 percent to 43.8 percent.

Thus far Democratic losses in the South have largely been confined to white voters. In most Southern states, Republicans can routinely count on 60 percent or more of the white vote. But, there are signs that Democrats may be losing their near-unanimous support from Southern black voters. In the 1997 elections for governor of Virginia, victorious Republican candidate James Gilmore garnered a record 20 percent vote from African Americans. In Florida, with white and black Democrats squabbling, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush seems poised to make


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significant inroads into the black vote. In other Southern states, similar though less serious rifts between black and white Democrats have emerged as well. Even a small loss in black support would have devastating consequences for Democrats in the South.

Although there should be no major shifts of party power in the South this year, chances are that the Democrats will slide further downhill. If the Clinton scandals explode further prior to November, that slide could be even steeper than is now expected. In governor's races, Democrats could lose two of the most important states the party still holds: Florida and Georgia, both of which have retiring Democratic governors. In Florida, Republican Jeb Bush is expected to defeat Democratic Lieutenant Governor Buddy MacKay. In Georgia, wealthy Republican businessman Guy Millner is perched to prevail over Democratic State Representative Roy Barnes. Another tight race is shaping up in Alabama, where Democratic Lieutenant Governor Don Siegelman faces incumbent Republican Governor Fob James, who won easily after a brutal primary struggle.

House and Senate races in the South also present greater opportunities for Republicans than Democrats, especially in a midterm election with the White House in Democratic hands. Not since 1934 has the party of the President made gains in Congress during a midterm election. In the Senate, Republicans have a decent chance to pick up an open seat in Kentucky and the seat held by Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings in South Carolina. The most vulnerable Republican is Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina.

In the House, about fifteen seats are in play, with Republicans having about two or three more opportunities than Democrats. In Alabama's Fifth Congressional District, Republicans may defeat Robert E. (Bud) Cramer, the last white Democratic Representative in that state. Already there are no white Democratic House members in Georgia and only one in Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama. If there is a broad ripple effect on Democrats from the scandals, even some of the South's black Democratic members of Congress could be in danger this November.

The likelihood of expanded Republican power in the South and nation virtually guarantees that the 2000 Census will be conducted without the sampling needed to reduce the undercount of minorities. Even if the Supreme Court authorizes sampling, Republicans will likely have enough power in Congress to block use of the procedure in the 2000 Census. It means that far more so than in 1980 or 1990, redistricting will be controlled by Republicans whose power depends greatly on white votes. And it means less support for affirmative action and civil rights programs.

There is no quick fix for the declining electoral prospects of Democrats. The party may have to undergo a large-scale reconstruction like the Republicans pulled off in the 1970s. New issues are on the horizon of the twenty-first century. Among others, these include: the nation's potentially ruinous entitlement obligations; the increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small segment of the population; inequality in educational opportunity; genuine reform of the political system; the corrosive effects of the global economy; and, ongoing racial divisions.

If the Democratic party is to thrive in the new millennium, it cannot simply accommodate itself to Republicans. The party needs to seize control of the battle for new ideas, reinvigorate its grassroots base, and develop new mechanisms for communicating its ideas to the public.

Allan J. Lichtman chairs the Department of History at American University in Washington, D.C. He has participated as an expert witness in more than fifty federal voting rights and redistricting lawsuits and is the author of The Keys to the White House, 1996: A Surefire Guide to Protecting the Next President, Madison Books (1996).