The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The white Southern Democrat is an endangered species

With Rep. John Barrow's loss in Georgia, the 2014 election likely marks the end of white Democrats from the Deep South in Congress -- a 50-year shift that not even Bill Clinton could help stave off.

That's because we could soon say goodbye to the last white Democratic senator from the Deep South, too.

Sen. Mary Landrieu and and former governor Edwin Edwards (who is running for Congress) are the last hopes for keeping white Democrats alive in the Deep South in Louisiana's Dec. 6 runoff, and  both are likely to lose. If they do, the congressional representation from the Deep South -- Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina -- will include only Republicans and black Democrats.

But white Southern Democrats took hits outside those five states as well.

Sen. Mark Warner barely won in Virginia, and will likely face a recount. Sen. Mark Pryor lost in Arkansas. Sen. Kay Hagan lost in North Carolina. Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes ran as  a "Clinton Democrat," but barely exceeded President Obama's 2012 vote share against soon-to-be-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). A $10 million get out the vote effort couldn't help Wendy Davis in Texas, either. She lost by 20.

And in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, who was betting on a racial realignment centered on black voters, received only 27 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls. Late-in-the-game mailers to black voters referencing Ferguson, might have dampened her appeal.

In various ways, the candidates have tried to navigate the fraught racial history and unique cultural leanings of the South. Grimes refused to even admit voting for Obama. Landrieu cited the racial history of the South as an explanation for  Obama's poor standing in her state. Republicans pounced, calling on her to apologize.

Long before that, Barrow -- long a survivor, until Tuesday -- successfully threaded the needle by talking about those tensions in a TV ad.

Highlighting his endorsement by the National Rifle Association in a 2012 campaign spot, he whipped out a gun he said his grandfather had used to stop a lynching. That ad would only make sense in the South, where white Democrats often cobbled together wins with a coalition of black and white voters.

For a time, Clinton was able to mask the decline, racking up victories among conservative white Democrats across the South over his two terms. But in subsequent years, white "Blue Dog" Southern Democrats steadily lost ground. The Economist, in 2010, compiled data on the 111th Congress, and wrote this:

In the Congress that passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the eleven former Confederate states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—had a total of 128 senators and representatives, of whom 115 were white Democrats (see chart). In 1981 Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since 1953, but most Southern elected officials remained white Democrats. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, white Democrats still comprised one-third of the South's tally. This year, however, it seems that white Southern Democrats have met their Appomattox: they will account for just 24 of the South's 155 senators and congressmen in the incoming Congress.

This is another Appomattox. The incoming Congress will include fewer still white Southern Democrats, and likely none in the Senate, save Florida's Bill Nelson and (maybe) Warner.

While minorities, particularly in urban centers, powered Democrats in national elections with Obama as a huge draw, Southern white Democrats have struggled to reconcile that image in more conservative red states. The answer was supposed to be the Clintons and name-brand Democrats who could tote a gun. But they couldn't outrun the Democratic brand embodied now by Obama, a former law professor from a Northern big city, who ran on uniting red and blue America, but has only helped further the historical race-based divide.

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