White Democratic congressmen in the South: An endangered species

September 6, 2012

Congressman Larry Kissell represents a district just 20 minutes north of here, but as his fellow Democrats gathered this week to renominate their president for a second term, the hometown Democrat was notably absent.

Not at the parties or the panel discussions, not at the Crowne Plaza Hotel where the North Carolina delegation set up shop — not even Thursday night when other North Carolina lawmakers spoke at the convention.

“I think Larry will be here at some point,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman David Parker said. “I honestly think he will be here. I’d love to see him.”

Kissell never showed, and the reasons are not hard to fathom: He is in a fight for his political life, and he comes from a part of the country where being a Democrat has become a huge political liability.

Kissell, who has served two terms in the House, is part of a dying political breed — white Southern Democrats, many of whom are moderate “Blue Dogs” — that is being pushed out of Congress by Republican state legislatures redrawing House districts in favor of GOP candidates. Minority Democrats remain part of the landscape because more black and Latino voters are being redrawn into the same districts to move them out of GOP districts. As Republicans make their own districts more secure, in other words, they are improving the prospects of blacks and Latinos in predominantly Democratic districts.

“It’s possible there won’t be a single white Democratic member of Congress from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and maybe just one or two from North Carolina, Tennessee, possibly for the next decade,” said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “The only case under which a conservative Democrat could win in those states would be because of a scandal or a national Democratic wave.”

Once the dominant party of the South, Democrats saw their power decline with Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of civil rights reforms and the rise of evangelical Republicans. But even as Republicans began to win governorships and state legislatures in Southern states, voters continued electing moderate Democrats — commonly called Blue Dog Democrats — who maintained moderate fiscal and social voting records.

In Southern states other than Texas and Florida, just a handful of white Democratic House incumbents remain, and three face particularly close races this year: Kissell and Reps. Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and John Barrow (Ga.).

To appeal to their new GOP-leaning constituents, all three voted with Republicans to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt and to repeal the health-care reform law. All three skipped this year’s formal convention proceedings, and they ambiguously answer questions about supporting President Obama’s reelection.

“I’ve always been my own person and run my own campaign,” McIntyre told reporters Tuesday when they asked about Obama.

In North Carolina, Republicans won control of the state legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than a century and redrew the state’s 13 House districts based on results of the 2008 presidential election. That left three safe Democratic districts surrounding urban and minority neighborhoods and seven seats much easier for Republicans to hold or snatch from Democrats.

Parker and his party colleagues are furious. He said the state’s new congressional map “looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s kind of like they were slinging the paint brush and ‘Oh, hey, that looks good, we’ll call it a congressional district.’ ”

Facing long-shot odds in a more competitive district, Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) opted to retire, saying his new district “looks like hell.” Rep. Heath Shuler, a Democratic colleague, also decided not to run.

“I thought everyone was a little too quick to proclaim North Carolina a blue state after the 2008 election,” Miller said. “This is a competitive state. A decade ago, 15 years ago, we were a Democratic state in statewide elections. . . . Now, people pretty much vote the same way for court reporter as they do for president of the United States.”

Kissell and McIntyre could soon be victims of the state’s new voting patterns.

Elected in 2008 as part of the wave that made Obama the first Democratic presidential candidate to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter, Kissell faces a close race against his GOP opponent, Richard Hudson, polls show. Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has called Kissell the “weakest incumbent in the country,” and his group plans to spend $1.2 million to defeat him. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to spend about $1 million to defend the seat.

Kissell’s absence this week — and his declining to answer multiple requests for comment — left other Democrats to explain his plight.

Jim Flynn, a Charlotte area Democrat running for state Senate, suggested that Kissell is the victim of complacency. “I think Democrats felt that the coattails from 2008 were going to be long, when, in fact, the coattails were extremely short,” Flynn said. “I think Republicans took it differently than we did, and because of that, now we’re having to play catch-up for probably the next two to three cycles.”

John N. Davis, a longtime North Carolina political observer, said Democratic gains in North Carolina will require national support. “If Obama continues to make a commitment here to voter registration and turnout here, then there’s hope for Democrats in close races,” Davis said. “But if he pulls his money out, it’s all over.”

As for McIntyre, when he addressed North Carolina Democrats at a breakfast in Charlotte, he touted his seniority on the Armed Services and Agriculture committees and said North Carolina “would go to dead bottom last” on each committee if his opponent, David Rouzer, prevailed.

When he concluded, McIntyre asked the crowd to pray for bipartisan consensus in Washington “so we can carry America forward.”

He didn’t ask the crowd to pray for his reelection.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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