WASHINGTON – The white Southern Democrat — endangered since the 1960s civil rights era — is sliding nearer to extinction.
After this week's elections, the Democratic Party barely holds a presence in the region outside of majority-black urban areas such as Atlanta and Memphis. The carnage for the party was particularly brutal in the Deep South, where just one white Democrat survived across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
The Republicans' effort to win over the South, rooted decades ago in a strategy to capitalize on white voters' resentment of desegregation, is all but complete.
"Right now in most of Dixie it is culturally unacceptable to be a Democrat. It's a damn shame, but that's the way it is," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a campaign strategist for conservative Democrats such as Jim Webb of Virginia, one of the few remaining Southern Democratic senators.
The losses were particularly disappointing for the party after the baby steps it made in the South in 2006 and 2008, when it picked up a host of Republican-leaning House districts and won Senate seats in North Carolina and Virginia. Many thought the party had learned its lessons and had begun to reverse recent history by nominating conservative candidates who hit the right notes on divisive social issues such as abortion and smaller government.
None of it mattered Tuesday.
Democrats didn't just see most of their recent gains obliterated, they lost at least 19 Southern House members and a senator, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Even some of the most conservative Democrats such as four-term Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia and 10-term Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi couldn't withstand the wave. It also snared such veterans as John Spratt of South Carolina, the 14-term chairman of the House Budget Committee, and 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia.
When the new Congress convenes in January, there will be at most 16 white Southern Democratic House members out of 105 seats in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Two races in Virginia and Kentucky were still too close to call, so the total could be as low as 14.
The setback continues a four-decade decline for Democrats in the South, where they once dominated. The slide began after the civil rights movement, when Republicans under President Richard Nixon began employing a Southern strategy to retake the region by appealing to white anger over desegregation. The GOP later highlighted liberal Democratic positions on social and welfare issues.
Most of the losing Democrats this year were moderates representing Republican-leaning districts. And the challenges could get even tougher for Southern Democrats as legislatures begin redrawing congressional districts from the 2010 census.
With some exceptions, including Mississippi and Louisiana, Republicans control statehouses across the South. They picked up North Carolina and Alabama on Tuesday.
The legislatures are likely to loop more conservatives into swing districts that still vote Democratic, making it even harder for white Southerners to hold on in the future.
The party's conservative Blue Dog coalition, which was founded in part by Southerners after the last Republican landslide in 1994, lost more than half of its 54 members, many in the South but others in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as conservative-leaning Western states.
John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster who specializes in swing-state races, saw six of his House clients lose and said the wave was unavoidable in conservative districts given the economy. He called the election a temporary setback from which Democrats will gradually recover.
"It's about a very activist agenda in a very difficult time. That makes people queasy," he said. "These are the guys who didn't vote for the activist agenda yet they were penalized. ... They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Others said that while the economy was the driving factor, party leaders got sidetracked on the messy health care bill debate and at times forced members into difficult votes that weren't necessary. Several conservative Democrats pointed to a contentious emissions-control energy bill that squeaked by in the House but never got a vote in the Senate.
"If you know the Senate's not going to pass something, why bring it up in the House when you also know it's going to be awfully controversial in these districts that are hard to hold," said Rep. Marshall, the Georgia Blue Dog who lost.
Marshall and Blue Dog co-chairman Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said the party needs more centrist leadership, suggesting Speaker Nancy Pelosi should step aside.
"She was certainly an issue in many races, including mine," said Matheson, the only one of the three Blue Dog co-chairs to survive Tuesday, and only narrowly. "I think there's an argument you gotta shake things up."
Saunders, the campaign strategist from Virginia, said the party got off track by focusing for so long on the health care bill, which he said was too big and confusing, and played into Republican criticism of government run amok.
"The idea that government can force you to buy health insurance just goes against the independent spirit," he said. "It's a cultural thing. Democrats just don't get the culture down here."