Breaking News Emails
Then there was one.
After the Democratic Party’s drubbing in the midterm elections, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is now the Democrats’ last senator from the Deep South, completing a political transformation that began 50 years ago.
She’s also just one of a handful of white Democrats now representing this region of the country in all of Congress.
And it’s possible – if not more than likely – that Landrieu will lose her runoff election next month. Her uphill race is the chief reason why Senate Democrats allowed her to move forward on a vote to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, an attempt to bolster her standing in the oil-rich state.
But that might not be enough, leaving Democrats without a single U.S. senator from the Deep South next year.
Of course, it’s important how you define “Deep South.” This definition includes Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. It doesn’t include two other states associated with the South: Florida (hello, Miami and Palm Beach!) and Virginia (with its populous and liberal Washington, D.C. suburbs).
Indeed, a combined 11 white Democrats occupy House and Senate seats in Florida and Virginia. And another six white Democrats hold House seats in North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
But those are now the exceptions – especially after Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., lost on Election Day.
This is a stunning reversal from more than 50 years ago, when Democrats dominated the South.
According to “Vital Statistics on Congress,” every single U.S. senator from the South (including Florida and Virginia) was a Democrat in the 87th Congress from 1961-1962 – two years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
And back then, 99 out of 105 House members from the South were Democrats. (And given the era, all of these Democrats were white men.)
50 years in the making
Political scientists and historians say this political transformation has been some 50 years in the making, beginning with the passage of the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.
“We have lost the South for a generation,” then-President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told an aide. Well, it turns out it wasn’t for only one generation.
“Beginning in 1963, the national Democratic Party abandoned its century-long commitment to avoid challenging the Jim Crow system,” wrote political scientists Nicholas Valentino and David Sears in 2005. “The civil rights legislation proposed by Northern Democrats immediately attracted massive resistance from Southern Democrats in Congress, and support for the Democratic Party began to erode among Southern whites.”
The transformation also includes Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy (Republicans appealing to white Southern voters vs. African Americans), the realignment during the Reagan Era (when the GOP won over conservative whites), and redistricting and the Voting Rights Act (whereby African Americans and Democratic voters in the South were concentrated in a handful of congressional districts).
And the shift has peaked in the Obama Era, with the nation’s first African-American president – a Democrat – in the White House.
But ideology also has played a role, says Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Georgia. “The national Democratic Party has become more liberal than it was 50 years ago,” he told NBC News, citing its positions on economic, national-security and energy issues.
Indeed, Black adds that Obama’s performance in these Deep South states was similar to Democrat John Kerry’s in 2004.
Democrats can still win the South – but they’ll be the exceptions
None of this is to say, however, that there won’t be future Democratic senators from the Deep South.
For instance, it’s possible to see how Kay Hagan could win in North Carolina in 2016, when presidential turnout could drive more Democratic voters to the polls.
Ditto Democrat Michelle Nunn in Georgia, who lost her Senate bid against Republican David Perdue in November.
But they would be the exceptions – not the dominant political party in the South.
NBC’s John O’Connor contributed to this article.