The changing Democratic chances in the south

The changing Democratic chances in the south

by digby

Brownstein speaks, you listen:

One key measure of any Democratic wave in the midterm elections will be whether it crests high enough to overcome the formidable Republican defenses in the growing suburbs across the South. The answer will have implications that extend far beyond 2018.
While Democrats have notched significant gains since the 1990s among white-collar suburban voters in most parts of the country, they have until recently made very little progress at loosening the Republican hold on affluent and increasingly racially diverse suburbs around such Southern metro areas as Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.

But suburban unease with Donald Trump's turbulent presidency may finally provide Democrats an opening to establish a beachhead in such places -- a development that would rattle the electoral map. Although the recoil from Trump among white-collar suburbanites inside the South is not as great as outside of it, both public and private polls signal that enough suburban voters are pulling away from him to create much greater opportunity than usual for Democrats this fall in the governor's race in Georgia, Senate races in Tennessee and Texas, and several suburban House seats across the region.

"The South is not immune," says Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster working in both Georgia and Tennessee. "We start off lower in some of these (Southern suburbs), definitely. But we are also definitely making inroads first and foremost with college-educated white women, but also college-educated white men."

Many of the most vulnerable Republican House seats around the country are centered on white-collar suburbs. Democrats have strong opportunities in suburban seats from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia through Northern Virginia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Denver and Los Angeles. That vulnerability is rooted in the unusual resistance Trump faces among well-educated white voters: Three national polls last week each found that around 60 percent of whites holding at least a four-year college degree disapproved of his performance.

But one of the key questions for November is whether Democrats can extend that pressure into suburban Southern seats that have previously been safe for Republicans, including districts near Richmond, Charlotte, Houston, Dallas, Austin and Atlanta.

In addition, gains in white-collar suburbs will be critical to Democratic prospects in the Georgia governor's race between African-American Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp; the highly competitive Tennessee Senate contest between former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn; and the more uphill, but still competitive, challenge by Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. 

Even if Democrats fall short in some or all of these races, a significantly improved performance in white-collar suburbs could offer them a roadmap for seriously contesting North Carolina, Georgia and perhaps even Texas against Trump in 2020 -- when African-Americans, Latinos and other minority voters, who mostly lean Democratic, will likely comprise a bigger share of the electorate than this fall.

Most discussion on whether Democrats can restore their tattered competitiveness in the big Southern states has focused on whether the party can increase turnout among those minority voters, who are rising as a share of the population in many Southern states. Registering and turning out more African-Americans, Latinos and other non-white voters undeniably represents an essential part of the equation for Democrats across the region, strategists in both parties agree. Abrams, in particular, has staked her campaign in Georgia largely on spurring greater turnout among minority and young voters who don't usually participate in midterm elections. 

But in virtually every state in which Democrats have grown more competitive since the early 1990s, increased minority participation has been only part of the equation -- it has been necessary, but not sufficient. Whether in California, Illinois and New Jersey, which tilted toward Democrats in the 1990s, or Colorado, Virginia and (more equivocally) North Carolina, where the party strengthened its position in the 2000s, the winning Democratic formula has combined both an increase in minority participation and improved performance among college-educated white voters. In the states where Democrats have gained ground in recent decades, those two changes have offset lackluster, and an often deteriorating, performance with evangelical, rural and non-college educated white voters.

"The idea that changing demographics alone are going to carry Democrats through, particularly in a deep South state, is fanciful," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has polled extensively across the South. "Changing demographics make it easier for them if they run a good campaign that appeals to whites as well." 

In the South, though, Democrats have failed to even remotely approach the gains among well-educated white voters that they have posted in other areas. Democrats, for instance, had high hopes for cracking the Georgia suburbs in 2014 when they nominated the scions of two prominent local political families in the key races:  
Michelle Nunn (the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn) for US Senate and Jason Carter (the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter) for governor. Yet both Nunn and Carter were crushed overall, and neither won more than 30 percent of college-educated white voters, according to exit polls. That's far below the typical Democratic performance among those voters in their best states, from Virginia through California, which generally ranges from the mid-40s through the mid-50s, according to exit polls.

Democrats were just as disappointed that year in Texas, when Wendy Davis, their gubernatorial nominee, suffered a stinging defeat to Republican Greg Abbott. Davis had emerged as a compelling national figure leading a filibuster in the State Senate against a Republican bill to restrict abortion rights, and Democrats hoped she could pry away suburban voters, especially women. But exit polls showed that Davis also carried only about three-in-ten college-educated whites -- and Abbott won comfortably.

In an interview, Davis pointed to two principal reasons Southern suburbs have remained so difficult for Democrats.

"One is that we've had a booming economy and it's the economy stupid as the saying goes, so people have felt pretty satisfied with where things are," Davis said. "We also suffer the problem of being absolutely ignored in presidential election contests which means that we haven't built the infrastructure that's necessary to communicate with a lot of the voters that are needed."

Other observers point to another systemic challenge for Democrats. The Democratic improvement in white-collar suburbs in other regions has been keyed largely by cultural affinity, since many college-educated voters, especially women, take more liberal positions on social issues from abortion and gay rights to gun control. But fewer Southern suburbanites are social liberals, probably because more of them than elsewhere are evangelical Christians or otherwise religiously traditional.

"Even among white college graduates in the South you have a much higher percentage of evangelicals," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "My guess is that's the biggest factor in it: they are more conservative, but that is mainly because they are more religious."

The Trump factor

Democrats still confront all of these barriers this year. But Trump's rise has provided them a new opening. With his racially infused nationalism and belligerent personal style, Trump conspicuously lost ground across many Southern suburbs in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton when compared to Mitt Romney's performance in the same places in 2012.

Trump's erosion in these Southern suburbs wasn't solely because of defections from well-educated white voters -- almost all of them are also growing more racially diverse. Exit polls showed Clinton stuck at about 30 percent support from college-educated white voters in Georgia and Texas and around 40 percent in North Carolina, all comparable to the Democrats' performance in the 2014 statewide races in those states. Yet in key suburbs around the major metropolitan areas, such as Gwinnett and Cobb counties outside of Atlanta, the shift away from the GOP was undeniable and ominous for Republican strategists.

"I still am stunned that the two most rock-ribbed counties in Georgia that we use to base statewide Republican wins on, Gwinnett County and Cobb County, both went for Hillary Clinton," said Ayres. "There has been so much emphasis on the blue collar counties in the Rustbelt that switched from Obama to Trump. There has been less focus on suburban counties in places like Atlanta or Houston that moved from Romney toward Clinton. Basically we've traded the smaller, slower growing more rural counties for larger fast growing suburban counties."

Elections since 2016 have offered Democrats some additional signs of progress in Southern suburbs. In last November's Virginia governor's race, Democrat Ralph Northam posted big advances not only in suburbs outside of Washington DC, which politically behave more like Northern suburbs, but also the suburban communities around Richmond, which have tilted more reliably Republican. Unusually strong performance in white-collar suburbs around Huntsville and Birmingham helped propel Democrat Doug Jones' narrow win in last December's Alabama special election for US Senate. And Democrat Jon Ossoff came close before ultimately falling to defeat Republican Karen Handel last June in a suburban Atlanta special election for a US House seat that Republican Tom Price had carried comfortably for years.

He goes on to analyse the races in Texas and Georgia which are moving in the general direction he describes but are anything but shoo-ins. Getting working class minority voters to the polls is difficult (they're busy working) and college educated whites are an unreliable constituency. But the trends are real and they've been accelerated by Trump. It's possible that this new coalition will fall into place more quickly than people thought.

*And no, nobody is saying that the Democrats should abandon the working class. They can't --- a large faction of their coalition are working class. They happen to be racial and ethnic minorities but all the policies Democrats put forth tp help the working class (which they actually do, unlike the Republicans) will help all workers. White working class voters have other reasons for voting for Republicans but they will benefit equally from Democratic policies that favor the working class.