Values Voters Go South on Democratic Party

The party’s liberal positions on cultural issues such as same-sex ‘marriage’ and abortion are a key reason why it has lost its political appeal in Southern states.

Republican challenger Bill Cassidy celebrates with supporters Dec. 6 in Baton Rouge, La., after defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Republican challenger Bill Cassidy celebrates with supporters Dec. 6 in Baton Rouge, La., after defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. (photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — There used to be an old saying in the South: You vote the way your grandfather shot in the Civil War.

“You just didn’t vote for Republicans, because they were the enemy,” Matt Green, an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

That has changed dramatically — with religious and cultural issues playing a key role.

With incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., losing a Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, there will be no Democrats in the U.S. Senate, a governor’s office or in the majority of any legislature in any Southern state from Texas to the Carolinas.

In the states that comprise the former Confederacy, only in Florida and Virginia will Democrats control a governor’s office or a U.S. Senate seat.

“It’s really remarkable. Now, the only areas in the South that vote Democrat are urban areas and areas with large African-American populations,” Green said.

The realignment to a solidly Republican South has been decades in the making, dating back to President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater made inroads in the region.

“Things started to speed up after the 1960s, and civil rights was a part of that,” Green said.

Other factors that help explain the GOP’s recent domination of the Deep South include Republicans who have replaced retired socially and fiscally conservative Democrats, midterm elections that swept in many Republicans into Congress, gerrymandering and Democrats switching parties.

But a key reason to explain why the Democratic Party is losing appeal in the South — arguably the most conservative and religious region of the country — concerns the national party’s positions on cultural issues such as same-sex “marriage,” gun control and abortion.

“The Democratic Party became increasingly homogeneous and liberal when they did not need the support of Southern Democrats anymore, which pushed the Southerners to the GOP,” said Brian Smith, associate dean and professor of political science at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.


Culturally Different

“The South is culturally different,” Christopher Wolfe, a political science professor at the University of Dallas, told the Register. “It’s more conservative than the rest of the country, and that certainly shows up on the social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. That obviously plays a very significant role.”

Analysts say the Democratic Party has the resources to rebuild its presence in the region, but Southern Democrats are at a disadvantage, given the strong liberalism of the national party. Social issues still loom large in the South. In Louisiana, the Catholic vote — which constitutes a quarter of the state’s population — has started to put a higher priority on issues such as school vouchers, same-sex “marriage” and abortion over the traditional New Deal politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“The religious and social conservatism of the South was always a potential point of division between the region and the Democratic Party,” Green said.

Until recently, Southern Democrats who staked out conservative positions on abortion and other social issues could run successfully for public office, but party forces have slowly purged those moderate-to-conservative candidates.

“Pro-life Democrats have been chased out of their party, which is something you do not see reported on all that much,” Wolfe said.

“This is always a tension the parties have, between those who are the purists and those who want to win,” Green added. “The Democratic Party may say, ‘Look, we found someone who is a moderate to conservative who can win Georgia,’ but other Democrats will say, ‘We don’t want that person elected because they aren’t sufficiently pure.’”

“Moderate Democrats, like moderate Republicans, are becoming almost extinct everywhere,” said Sean Cain, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.


Abortion in Louisiana

Landrieu, a Catholic who served 18 years in the Senate, was undone by Cassidy’s effective strategy of nationalizing their race by linking her with President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in most of the South. Cassidy’s campaign and outside groups repeatedly mentioned her support of the Affordable Care Act and noted that she voted with Obama 97% of the time.

Abortion also emerged as an issue in the Louisiana Senate race. Landrieu, who described herself as pro-life despite supporting legalized abortion, criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this year for signing off on new laws that require women to be provided with abortion literature before undergoing the procedure and that ban pro-abortion organizations such as Planned Parenthood from offering sex-education instruction in public schools.

Landrieu told Politico that Jindal’s decision to approve the new abortion restrictions was “very troubling” and not in line with the majority of Louisiana women. Cassidy said Landrieu’s record showed she was “clearly pro-abortion rights.”

“She has supported using U.S. taxpayer dollars for overseas abortions, and most folks, even if they are pro-choice, don’t care for that,” Cassidy told Politico.

For now, analysts say that Southern Democratic candidates have to focus on somehow transcending the social issues. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., negated gun control by effectively telling voters that they did not have to worry about him on that issue because he opposed it, Green said.

Meanwhile, Cain noted that many white and black Southern Democrats have also not totally embraced the national party’s viewpoints. However, despite polling that indicates black communities have more traditional cultural views informed by Christianity and religion, statistics show that approximately 90% of blacks still vote for Democrats on the national stage.

“It’s very difficult for liberal Democrats outside black-majority districts to get elected [in the South],” said Cain, who suggested that the Democratic Party need not write off the South completely. “There has been a gradual process of the Democratic Party declining and the Republican Party strengthening, such that the South nowadays is shifting in the direction of being a one-party region, though I think it’s still too soon to call it that,” Cain said.


Recent Losses

When Johnson signed his signature civil-rights legislation 50 years ago, he reportedly told a fellow Democrat that the party had lost the South for a generation. But, in fact, it took the better part of five decades for nearly all vestiges of the old Democratic hegemony to recede, during a period when the party became consistently more liberal with respect to hot-button cultural issues like abortion and homosexual rights.

For example, when Jindal took office in 2007, Democrats controlled at least one chamber of the Louisiana Legislature; but that quickly changed due to a series of party switches, retirements and longtime Democratic-held seats switching hands in special elections, Cain said.

“The South was still Democratic at the state level for 20 years after the civil-rights movement. Texas, where I live, did not have a [GOP] majority in the U.S. House or state legislature until after 2002,” Smith said.

“Wave elections” in 1980, 1994, 2010 and 2014 also swept out many moderate-to-conservative Southern Democrats, who were replaced by Republicans. Since the Johnson administration, when the Democratic Party started becoming more socially liberal and associated with urban politics, white male voters have been a problem for the national party.

“The Democrats haven’t won a majority of the white male vote since LBJ,” Smith said. Some Democratic strategists are counting on the South’s changing demographics, as more Hispanics, a majority of whom tend to lean Democratic in elections, move into the region. But analysts doubt Hispanics will be a Democratic monolith, since many tend to prioritize traditional religious and cultural values.

Even if Southern Hispanics were to become as reliable a voting block for Democrats as the region’s black electorate, that still may not be enough for Democrats to turn the tide. Said Green, “If Democrats just wait for the population to change, they could be waiting for a long time.”



Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.