Will the South stay solidly Republican?

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 12:12 AM

The 2010 election was devastating for Democrats across the country, but the South was at the epicenter of the destruction.

One-third of the House seats Democrats lost in November came from the 11 traditional Southern states. In the Senate, Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) was crushed and Democrats came nowhere near winning an open seat in Florida or defeating potentially vulnerable GOP incumbents in Louisiana and North Carolina.

The gubernatorial level was no different. Republicans swept the six governor's elections, including in Tennessee, where the GOP broke eight years of Democratic rule, and in the electorally critical state of Florida.

Since the election, things have gone from bad to worse for Democrats in the South. In Louisiana, the state's attorney general and five state legislators - all Democrats - have switched to the Republican side since the 2010 midterms.

In Mississippi, Democrats didn't even field a candidate for lieutenant governor, state auditor or secretary of state for elections this year.

The nationwide reapportionment of congressional seats shows that the population - and the political power that goes with it - is shifting south. Of the 12 seats added, eight are in the South - including four in Texas alone.

The Republican consolidation of the South over the past two years is hard to dispute. But is it a permanent reality or simply the latest swing of the political pendulum in the region? Not surprisingly, the two parties offer vastly different assessments.

"Much of the South is just off-limits for Democrats for statewide offices," argued Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has worked extensively in the region. "If Roy Barnes can't win in Georgia, it's hard to imagine any other Democrat winning unless something drastic changes."

Barnes, a Democrat, was governor from 1998 to 2002, when a little-known state senator named Sonny Perdue (R) upset him. Barnes tried to reclaim the office in 2010 but lost an open-seat contest to former congressman Nathan Deal (R) by 10 percentage points.

The idea that Republican dominance in the region is even semi-permanent is belied by recent political history, insists former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, an Alabama native.

"Any political region is about cycles," he said. "Remember after 1994, when everyone wrote that Democrats were dead in the South, only to hold their own in 1998, do well by 2006 and win states in 2008 presidential [race] we'd only dreamed of being truly competitive in?"

A brief look at the electoral history of the region proves Gibbs's point.

As recently as 2001, Democrats held seven of the 11 Southern governorships - including states in the Deep South such as Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. That same year, Democrats held nine of the 22 Senate seats in the South. (They currently hold just six.) In two weeks in May 2008, Democrats won special elections in Louisiana's 6th Congressional District and Mississippi's 1st - both seats that Republicans had held. (Both seats are now in GOP hands again.) And, of course, President Obama won in North Carolina and Virginia in 2008 - the first Democrat to pull off that feat in more than two decades.

The answer to how solid the South is for the GOP and how long the party's near-unanimous hold on the region will last is important, particularly given Republicans' show of strength in 2010 in the Northeast and upper Midwest - both traditional Democratic strongholds.

Obama could - we emphasize could - withstand losing all 11 Southern states in 2012 and still win a second term with more than 300 electoral votes (assuming he is able to hold every other state he won in 2008).

But the continued population growth in the South suggests that Democrats can't simply forsake the region in future statewide and national elections. Doing so could put them in an electoral hole that their growing strength in the Plains and Southwest may not help them dig out of.

John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama, argued that a strengthening economy and a Republican Party willing to cut Social Security and Medicare are at the root of a return to Democratic competitiveness in the South.

"No one is debating that the political environment is tough for Democrats in the South right now," he said. "But it is temporary."

Democrats have to hope he's right.

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