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Deep South Democrats Seek Path Back To Relevance

Sep 19, 2012
Originally published on September 19, 2012 8:09 pm

It can be lonely being a Democrat in the Deep South. Just ask Steve Wilson.

The young lawyer was a first-time delegate at the Democratic National Convention, but it's not something he brags about back home in Meridian, Miss.

"I don't talk about it," he says. "It's the elephant in the room, so to speak. Most of my friends are Republican, I think, but I just don't bring it up."

That climate can make it hard to recruit viable Democratic candidates in the Deep South — once a solidly Democratic region that is now reliably Republican.

"I'm 82 and I'm running for the United States Senate," says Albert N. Gore Jr. of Starkville. He's the Democratic challenger to Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker.

"I told them a year and a half ago — I said if y'all don't get somebody, I'm going to do it," Gore says. He says there should have been younger people interested in taking on Wicker — "but they didn't want to fight."

The Financial Factor

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole says it's more than not having the fight — it's "money."

Cole acknowledges that Mississippi Democrats have come up short this year and last, offering up few serious candidates for statewide office.

"We've made the mistake of believing that the only way to win is with paid advertising," he says. "And so a candidate feels as though they have to raise multiple millions of dollars in order to win."

He says Democrats can't play by those money rules, so they instead need to build grass-roots support.

State Democratic executive board member Dietrick Johnson agrees. The farmer from tiny Como, Miss., thinks the party lost focus.

"If you stay with your base and build your base out, you can win," he says. "But if you neglect your base and go after independents and liberal Republicans, if there's such thing, then you are going to vote against your own constituents. So the next election you are going to lose because you have lost your base."

A recent trend for Southern Democrats is to try to distance themselves from the national party, but Johnson says that's not a viable long-term strategy.

'Nothing In The Middle'

Finding a path back to relevance in the region is the mission of the Blue South Project, run by Charleston, S.C., strategist Phil Noble.

"We didn't get in this hole overnight, and we sure ain't going to get out overnight," Noble says. "But I think we've at least stopped digging."

Noble thinks Democrats have hit rock bottom — and Republicans have topped out.

"The Republicans have gerrymandered everything they can win, and oftentimes black Democrats have been complicit, so that we get safe white Republican districts and safe black Democratic districts, with nothing in the middle for moderate white Democrats," Noble says.

States that have been able to bridge that divide are the bright spots where Democrats can compete, Noble says. That would include states like Virginia and North Carolina — both in play in the presidential race.

"They were red and now they're competitive. And Georgia, arguably, is not too far behind," Noble says. "You look further down the road — Texas is going to flip, and when Texas flips, it's flipped forever, or at least for a few generations, just simply because of demographics."

Noble is talking about Hispanic voters. In North Carolina, for example, the number of registered Latino voters doubled in the past four years. The state is also home to middle-of-the-road voters who have moved to the region from the North and Midwest.

Making The Connection

But even as population shifts provide an opening for Democrats in the South, they can't compete without a better bench of candidates, says Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe.

His state felt the GOP surge in 2010, but Beebe, a Democrat, swept every county. He says the secret is being able to empathize with voters.

"A good example of somebody who could do that is Bill Clinton," Beebe says. "He could connect. He messed up and when he messed up he still could connect."

If you can make that connection, Beebe says, you can win in the South, regardless of whether there's an R or a D behind your name.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the home stretch of the presidential election, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney is likely to spend much time in the Deep South. That once solidly Democratic region has, for decades now, been reliably Republican.

And as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, Democrats are trying to regain relevance in red Southern territory.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It can be lonely being a Democrat in the Deep South. Just ask Steve Wilson. The young lawyer was a first-time delegate at the Democratic National Convention, but it's not something he brags about back home in Meridian, Mississippi.

STEVE WILSON: I don't talk about it. It's the elephant in the room, so to speak. Most of my friends are Republican, I think. But I just don't bring it up.

ELLIOTT: That climate can make it hard to recruit viable candidates.

ALBERT N. GORE, JR.: I'm 82 and I'm running for United States Senate.

ELLIOTT: Albert N. Gore, Jr. of Starkville is the Democratic challenger to Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker.

JR.: I told them a year and a half ago, I said, if ya'll don't get somebody, I'm going to do it.

ELLIOTT: Now, do you think there should have been more people than you interested in that job?

JR.: There were more people that should because they're younger. But they didn't want to fight.

ELLIOTT: Party Chairman Rickey Cole says it's more than not having the fight.

RICKEY COLE: Money. Money.

ELLIOTT: Cole acknowledges Mississippi Democrats have come up short this year and last, offering up few serious candidates for statewide office.

COLE: We've made the mistake of believing that the only way to win is with paid advertising. And so, a candidate feels as though they have to raise multiple millions of dollars in order to win.

ELLIOTT: He says Democrats can't play by those money rules, so instead need to build grassroots support.

State Democratic executive board member Dietrick Johnson agrees. The farmer from tiny Como, Mississippi thinks the party lost focus.

DIETRICK JOHNSON: If you stick with your base and build your base out, you can win. But if you neglect your base and go after independents and liberal Republicans - if there's such thing - then you're going to vote against your own constituents. So the next election you are going to lose because you have lost your base.

ELLIOTT: A recent trend for Southern Democrats is to try to distance themselves from the national party, but Johnson says that's not a viable long term strategy.

Finding a path back to relevance in the region is the mission of the Blue South Project, run by Charleston strategist Phil Noble.

PHIL NOBLE: We didn't get in this hole overnight and we sure ain't going to get out overnight. But I think we've at least stopped digging.

ELLIOTT: Noble thinks Democrats have hit rock bottom and Republicans have topped out.

NOBLE: The Republicans have gerrymandered everything they can win. And oftentimes, black Democrats have been complicit so that we get safe white Republican districts and safe black Democratic districts, with nothing in the middle for moderate white Democrats.

ELLIOTT: States that have been able to bridge that divide are the bright spots where Democrats can compete, Noble says. States like Virginia and North Carolina, both in play in the presidential race.

NOBLE: They were red and now they're competitive. And Georgia, arguably, is not too far behind. You look further down the road, Texas is going to flip. And when Texas flips, it's flipped forever, or at least for a few generations, just simply because of demographics.

ELLIOTT: Noble is talking about Hispanic voters. In North Carolina, for example, the number of registered Latino voters doubled in the last four years. The state is also home to middle-of-the-road voters who've moved to the region from the north and Midwest.

Even as population shifts provide an opening for Democrats in the South, they can't compete without a better bench of candidates, says Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe. His state felt the GOP surge in 2010, but Beebe, a Democrat, swept every county. He says the secret is being able to empathize with voters.

GOVERNOR MIKE BEEBE: A good example of somebody that could do that is Bill Clinton. I mean, he could connect. He messed up. And when he messed up, he still could connect.

ELLIOTT: If you can make that connection, Beebe says, you can win in the South regardless if there's an R or a D behind your name.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.