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The Southern Democrat is a dying breed, but it’s still kicking in some states

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) has shown a double-digit lead in two new polls of his reelection race -- a race in which some were starting to leave him for dead.

Which has left all of us searching for explanations as to why. Why is Pryor still ahead in a state that has, along with almost all of the South, trended so strongly against Democrats in recent decades?

Part of the reason: Arkansas is holding on to its Democratic traditions more than most of its neighbors. And it's not alone.

It can be hard to quantify such a notion, but we're going to do our best. Below, we look at 11 states in the South that have trended away from Democrats at the federal level and are now clearly red states.

The chart looks at these 11 states according to several measures:

1) Democratic identification vs. Republican identification, per 2012 Gallup surveys

2) The percentages of their state Houses which are held by Democrats

3) The percentages of their state Senates which are held by Democrats

4) The percentages of their congressional delegations which are Democratic

5) Whether they have a Democratic governor

6) How many of their U.S. senators are Democrats

Each state is ranked in each category against the others according to how much it retains its Democratic traditions, with more points for keeping the Democratic Party alive. At the bottom is the cumulative total for each state -- something we'll call that state's "Democratic Tradition Score" -- trademark pending.

(It's highly subjective measure, yes, but it's one that we think is instructive.)

The takeaway: Not all red Southern states are created equal. Some of them have been significantly more hesitant to hand their state legislatures, congressional and statewide offices to Republicans -- even as they vote just as Republican (or more) in presidential races.

You'll notice that, according to these data, Arkansas ranks third out of 11 when it comes to its Democratic Tradition Score. West Virginia, which is still controlled in large part by Democrats, ranks first. Kentucky, with still-strong party identification numbers, a Democratic governor and a Democratic state House, is second.

What's most interesting is when you match their Democratic Tradition Scores against President Obama's share of the vote in 2012:


The chart above demonstrates that there is very little correlation between how a state voted at the presidential level and how much it has kept its Democratic tradition alive. While states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas were among Obama's worst states, that doesn't mean they have abandoned the Democratic Party in the same proportion.

As it happens, all 11 of these states are hosting Senate races in 2014.

Predictably, Democrats have no shot in the states with the four lowest Democratic Tradition Scores. But look at the rest: They're competing in Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia, and they've got at least a glimmer of hope in two others: West Virginia and Mississippi (provided Sen. Thad Cochran loses his primary).

A big reason those states are competitive is because they continue to have Democratic parties with a pulse who are fighting to keep the brand alive. This allows them to recruit qualified candidates who can exploit openings when they present themselves.

And for someone like Pryor, that helps quite a bit.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.



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