Mary Landrieu's loss to Bill Cassidy in the Dec. 6 runoff will leave the Deep South without a Democratic U.S. senator for the first time in several generations. It also puts Landrieu's seat in Republican hands for the first time since 1883. That's a 180-degree reversal from the early 1960s, when every senator from the Deep South was a Democrat. Many are analyzing the GOP's decades-long surge in the South, but not all are reading the latest election results correctly.
There probably was no mathematical way for Landrieu to win this race, given the widespread unpopularity of President Barack Obama across the nation — not just the South — and the amount of money spent against Landrieu. In addition, Landrieu's national Democratic supporters concluded after Nov. 4 that she was a lost cause and pulled nearly $2 million in TV time. The Center for Public Integrity calculated that Landrieu ran only 100 commercials in the month leading up to the runoff, while Cassidy ran 6,000. Landrieu felt the sting of abandonment, saying, "You know, they walked away from this race."
Walking away from this and every other Southern race is also what Michael Tomasky, a columnist for The Daily Beast, prescribed last week as a solution for Democrats. In a widely discussed column, Tomasky decried the "reactionary, prejudice-infested place [Landrieu] comes from," and suggested to Democrats, "Forget about it. Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don't need it anyway."
That argument has been made elsewhere in recent years — by University of Maryland political scientist Thomas F. Schaller in his 2008 book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, and in an ugly, bigoted fashion by Chuck Thompson in his 2012 book Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. Like them, Tomasky is dead wrong.
Despite its recent red turn, the South was, for much of recent history, a Democratic stronghold. After Landrieu's defeat, The Washington Post published an excellent infographic charting Southern Senate seats from 1860 to the present — showing unbroken lines of blue for most of the 20th century. Red-blue maps that break down voting patterns by parish (or county) rather than by state show something else: The South is, by and large, "purple," rather than a solid sea of red. (That sea of red is actually the Midwest, but pundits like Tomasky never suggest that national Democrats abandon Kansas.)
Furthermore, the election of a Republican over an incumbent Democrat anywhere diminishes Democratic power, principles and ideas elsewhere, and vice-versa. The Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney — hardly a Democratic sympathizer — points out, accurately, that without Southern senators, the Democrats would not have seized the Senate in 2001, and that, more recently, the Affordable Care Act never would have passed Congress.
Brandon Friedman, a Shreveport native who's now deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, responded to Tomasky by sending out a red-blue chart of voting patterns in the 2012 presidential election. Of the South's 50 largest cities, only 12 voted Republican. "Perspective on Southern conservatism: Landrieu carried parishes of 3 largest Louisiana cities — New Orleans, Baton Rouge & Shreveport — 64-36," he wrote. "If you think the South is conservative, here's perspective: Rural areas certainly are. But Southern cities are blue."
Tomasky would have Democrats forsake some of their most loyal voters: blue-collar workers, union members and particularly African-Americans, 94 percent of whom voted for Landrieu over Cassidy. "Trying to win Southern seats is not worth the ideological cost for Democrats," Tomasky wrote. Strange, since Tomasky seems to think it well worth the ideological cost to throw black and poor Southerners under the bus.
In recent years Republicans have co-opted the populist position once assumed by Democrats — that's Democrats' fault. It's also true that much of the anti-Landrieu sentiment actually was animus toward Obama.
"There always has been a kind of working-class populism in the South, and it always came to grief over race," wrote Esquire's Charles P. Pierce in rebuttal to Tomasky. "But it's 2014, and forging an actual alliance of working people, black and white, in the places that need it the most, is a worthwhile effort whether it fails initially or not. To abandon the people trying to forge that alliance — and, therefore, to abandon the people on whose behalf that alliance is being forged — would be political malpractice of the highest order."