In 2010, the Alabama legislature went Republican for the first time in 136 years. In 2011, Republicans won the Mississippi statehouse and Louisiana’s legislature—for both, a first since Reconstruction. That leaves Arkansas as the Holdout State.
But Arkansas is wobbling. If its legislature falls to Republicans this year—the odds are 50-50 or better—all 11 states of the old Confederacy will be in GOP hands. And the political current that is transforming the South from a Democratic bastion into the bedrock of Republican strength nationally will be nearly complete.
In Arkansas, the ever-so-slow Republican trend accelerated in 2010. Republicans not only increased their state legislative seats by 50 percent, they also won two open U.S. House seats previously held by Democrats. This November, the one Democratic seat left (of the state’s four) is all but certain to be captured by Republican Tom Cotton, an Iraq war veteran.
And in 2014, Democratic senator Mark Pryor is sure to face a stiff Republican challenge. Thus, it was no coincidence that Pryor was the lone Senate Democrat to vote with Republicans in July to extend all the Bush tax cuts. He also voted twice with Democrats to limit the tax cuts to individuals earning less than $200,000 annually.
Beyond Arkansas, there’s more trouble for Democrats. Republicans, aided by adroit redistricting, are favored to oust the only white Democratic House member, John Barrow of Georgia, in the Deep South.
And in North Carolina, Democrats could lose as many as four House seats. Artful reapportionment by the newly elected Republican legislature (after 116 years of Democratic control) forced two Democratic House members to retire and left two others in Republican-tilting districts.
The rise of Republicans marks the end of white Democrats as the leading political force in the South. This is historic. For 125 years, white Democrats controlled statehouses across most of the region. In Washington, their role was pivotal because they chaired the most important Senate and House committees for decades. Nationally, since many of them were conservatives, they diluted the influence of the Democratic party’s dominant liberal wing.
Republicans made significant gains in the 1980 and 1994 landslides. But 2010 was different. Two things happened: State elections were nationalized, and white moderates joined conservatives in overwhelmingly voting for Republican House candidates. Exit polls showed a mere 17 percent of Southern whites identified as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans. Whites voted 3-1 for Republicans.
No longer could white Democrats, whether conservatives or moderates, win elections by disassociating themselves from the national party. “The image of the state party became the image of the national party,” says Merle Black of Emory University. Black and his brother Earl are the leading historians of modern Southern politics.
“The Obama-Pelosi Democratic party just does not sell with many white Southerners,” Black says. In the Deep South, “the Democratic party has been reduced to African Americans, plus white liberals. That’s not close to a majority.”
Four of the six most conservative Democrats in the House lost in 2010. They had voted against Obamacare and the cap and trade energy bill. That didn’t save them.
In central Georgia, Democrat Jim Marshall, a four-term House member, was hawkish on defense. He was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He outspent his Republican opponent, Austin Scott. But Scott won, 53 percent to 47 percent.
In Alabama, Bobby Bright, elected in 2008, had bucked his party’s leadership more than any other House Democrat. He, too, outspent his Republican opponent, Martha Roby, a 34-year-old Montgomery city council member. Bright had been a popular mayor of Montgomery, but he lost, 51 percent to 49 percent.
That one-term Democrat Travis Childers lost to Alan Nunnelee in Republican-leaning northern Mississippi was not a surprise. But the defeat of Democrat Gene Taylor, a 21-year incumbent, was. His seat had been considered one of the safest in the country. He lost to Republican Steven Palazzo, 52 percent to 47 percent.
John Barrow, however, survived the Republican wave in 2010. He easily won reelection, 57 percent to 43 percent, even after statehouse Republicans had taken Athens, his hometown, out of the district, forcing him to move to Savannah.
Republicans took another bite out of Barrow’s district, based on the 2010 census, by removing Savannah, forcing him to move again, to Augusta. In 2008, Barack Obama won 55 percent of the vote in the old district. In the new one, he would have gotten 45 percent. According to the Cook Political Report, the district changed from slightly Democratic (“D+1”) to strongly Republican (“R+10”).
Barrow is a shrewd candidate. In 2011, rather than vote for Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader, he voted for John Lewis, the African-American Democrat from Atlanta. (The district is one-third black.) But Republicans are determined to defeat him, and he’s likely to be outspent.
Arkansas still has a Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, but he’s term-limited (leaving in 2014) and unable to stem the Republican tide as Bill Clinton did. “As recently as three or four years ago, Arkansas wholly separated in-state politics from national politics,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett wrote in July. “It found a way to reject national Democratic party liberalism while not assigning its local Democratic politicians any complicity.”
It was Obama, Brummett told me, “who tipped Arkansas to nationalized elections.” How? “By beating Hillary and paying no attention to Arkansas and not mobilizing our black vote and seeming a remote liberal.” Now there’s no turning back.
For the 2012 election, Bill Clinton will address the Democratic National Convention next month. However, “Arkansas voters are perfectly capable of listening to Clinton extol Obama and then continuing to fear and despise Obama,” Brummett says. And continuing to remake Arkansas as the last Southern state to turn Republican.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.