By H. Harrison Coleman IV
Since the South has existed, it has leaned to the right-wing side of politics. Even before it attempted to secede from the United States in the 1860s, its agrarian, aristocratic foundations ensured that the South would always be more conservative than its northern, more populated counterparts. Despite the occasional left-leaning politician rising out of that area (Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton come to mind), the South’s default political setting has always been that of conservatism.
The South has a long and dark history. The bloody Civil War, fought by the Southern- formed Confederacy to keep their African-American slaves, led to the bitter post-war Reconstruction. This era in the South spawned groups like the Ku Klux Klan and led to the horrifically racist Jim Crow laws being passed in many Southern states. Reconstruction, in turn, led to the hard-fought Civil Rights Era, in which the long-persecuted African American population rose in peaceful protest against the racism rampant in the South.
Throughout all of this, the South was politically dominated by the Southern Democrats, called by many the Dixiecrats, a conservative faction of the Democratic Party. Although the Dixiecrats do not exist today, their racist and violent history lives on in every Civil War cemetery, battlefield, and history museum in the United States.
Despite its painful conservative past, the South has been showing signs of political change in recent years. As immigrants from outside the US and migrants from other places within the country flock to states like Georgia and Texas, the political landscape has begun to shift farther and farther leftwards. This change has been accelerated by the blowback to the policies and unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump. The 2018 Midterm elections saw Democrats gain in all parts of the country, taking back the House of Representatives and flipping several state governorships and legislatures. And nowhere did President Trump and the Republicans feel the winds of change more than in the South.
Although Democrats gained nine seats from the South in the House of Representatives, two other elections captured the attention of most: Georgia’s gubernatorial election and Texas’s US Senate election.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's final term expired in 2018; the governorship was contested by Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. The election ended up being one of the closest in Georgia’s modern history: Kemp only narrowly won by a margin of fewer than 55,000 votes. Despite allegations of voter fraud (Kemp was Secretary of State at the time and was in charge of all elections in Georgia, including his own), Abrams conceded.
At the same time, in Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke made history with a massive grassroots campaign in an attempt to defeat Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in their 2018 election. Though O’Rourke ended up 200,000 votes short on Election Day, he brought Texas closer to the Democrat camp than it had been for decades. His campaign reverberated throughout the political world and helped many other Democrats get elected in Texas that same year.
Flash forward to 2020, when the Southern states are looking more and more competitive on all levels. This year, Democrats in Georgia and Texas again lead the charge for liberalism in the South, with the Presidential elections in both states looking to be extremely close.
Most of the Democratic Party’s growth in these states is driven by the growth of three groups: youth, people of color, and metropolitans. These groups have been migrating to the South at a high rate, drawn to new jobs and college opportunities offered by these states. However, Texas and Georgia are joined in the attempt to turn the South blue by other states this time around—most notably North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
South Carolina has seen the ascent of Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat seeking to claim Republican Lindsey Graham’s Senate seat. Harrison has been polling extremely well for a Democrat in South Carolina, tying with, or even polling ahead of Graham, casting doubt on the state’s “ruby-red” status.
Mississippi, similarly to South Carolina, has an extremely competitive Senate race. Democrat Mike Espy, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, is challenging incumbent Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. Espy initially campaigned for the same seat in 2018, when a special election took place after Senator Thad Cochrane abruptly resigned. In the special election, Espy came within a few percentage points of Hyde-Smith, buoyed largely by Mississippi's large African-American population. As Espy seeks a rematch, he hopes to find a path to victory by swaying the crucial demographic of suburban white women.
Finally, North Carolina Democrats hope to follow the example of Virginia, the only Southern state that has consistently voted for Democrats in all their recent elections. North Carolina is viewed by many pundits as the most likely state in the South to flip from red to blue. It’s worth mentioning that North Carolina accomplished this before–the state voted for Barack Obama in his 2008 election, albeit by a narrow margin, though it voted Republican in the two subsequent Presidential elections. North Carolina also boasts an electoral prize second only to Georgia—North Carolinians will vote for President, their Governor, and one of their US Senators in November. Political analysts like the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight both have North Carolina characterized as a toss-up, breaking from the state’s Republican past. This trend has been driven by the Research Triangle, a heavily Democratic urban area in central North Carolina that has seen massive growth in the past few years.
The South provides an example to all of the United States, especially in these politically charged and uncertain times. As the country deals with old evils like hate groups, the suppression of minorities, and political violence, Southerners of all colors and creeds prepare to try and right the wrongs of the past and atone for the bloody history that has caused so much pain. As the Democrats look to take back the South, the lessons of history ought not be ignored.