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Posted at 10:35 AM ET, 01/11/2011

Southern Democrats in dire straits; 2011 looms large

By Aaron Blake

Southern Dems.bmp

The Southern Democrat is hurting politically, and it's only likely to get worse.

Democrats lost almost everywhere in November, but in no region was it worse than in the South. And since the election, more than 20 Democratic state legislators in the region have switched to become Republicans, adding a troubling trend to the mixture.

The decline of Southern Democrats on the federal level has been evident for decades. But over the last two months, they've taken a huge hit at the state legislative level too. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures (see above), 2010 is the first time Democrats do not hold a majority of state legislative seats in the South.

But just how bad a state are Southern Democrats really in right now? And can they make a comeback? The elections of 2011 will have a lot to say about that.

First, though, a look at the numbers:

* In 11 southern states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, Democrats controlled 45 of 106 congressional seats before the election. They now control just 31 seats.

* Democrats also lost Senate and governor's seats. They control three of 22 Senate seats and three of 11 governorships.

* Before the 2010 election, Democrats controlled 10 of 22 state legislative chambers and still held a majority of both state House and state Senate seats in those 11 states. They now hold five chambers and just more than 40 percent of the overall seats.

* Alabama Democrats lost majorities in both chambers for the first time in 136 years, dropping from 60 seats to 39 seats in the state House and 20 seats to 12 seats in the state Senate.

* North Carolina Democrats also lost both chambers, dropping from 68 House seats to 52 and 30 Senate seats to 19.

* Mississippi didn't even have state legislative election this year, but state Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's defection from Democrat to Republican means the chamber could be tied if Republicans can win a special election today.

Looking at those numbers, it's pretty clear that the Southern Democrat has reached a new political low. But even these numbers don't totally explain how far the party has fallen off in the South because many of the seats still held by Southern Democrats are heavily weighted toward minorities.

In fact, of the 31 remaining Southern Democrats in the U.S. House, most are minority members from districts where the population is mostly black and/or Hispanic.

Democrats hold just 14 of 85 Southern seats where a majority of voters are white, and only one in the Deep South, where Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) is the last man standing.

The situation is similar at the state legislative level. As Jonathan Martin points out in his look at the Southern Democrat, 26 of the 39 Democrats in the Alabama state House are black.

The point of this data is not that the minority districts don't count . They do. It's just that most of these districts are simply unattainable for Republicans because the minority communities vote so consistently for Democrats. They represent an electoral floor for Southern Democrats; if Democrats are to compete in the South, they need to be able to compete for white voters -- something they simply aren't doing right now.

Democrats are clearly in a very bad spot politically in the South. But, they're not politically dead yet.

Democrats are quick to point out that after the 2006 and 2008 elections, many journalists were writing the obituary for the Northeastern Republican. Then, in 2010, Republicans won back both seats in New Hampshire, six seats in New York, five seats in Pennsylvania and one seat in New Jersey.

Likewise, after doom and gloom were predicted for the Southern Democrat following the 2004 election, the party wound up winning two special elections in conservative House districts in Alabama and Mississippi -- gains that epitomized the party's resurgence nationallly. And Southern Democrats in North Carolina even bucked the trend this cycle, holding on to a majority of the state's congressional delegation.

The increasing nationalization of politics doesn't bode well for Southern Democrats, however. They beat the odds for a long time, holding on to many conservative state legislative seats even as voters turned on the party at the federal level. Now that those seats have gone Republican, they will be that much harder for Democrats to win back.

As we watch this story play out, keep an eye on state legislative elections in two Southern states this year -- Louisiana and Mississippi. Both states have turned sharply against Democrats at the federal level in recent years, but Democrats still hold majorities in three of four chambers in those states (and they are close to parity in the fourth, the Louisiana House).

If the environment gets better for Democrats and the party can hold those majorities in this off year election, it shows that the Southern Democrat might not be in such dire straits after all. If the environment gets better and voters still deliver majorities for Republicans, then the prognosis for Democrats in the region is dire.

Keep an eye on this; it will be one of the major themes of an otherwise quiet 2011 at the state level.

By Aaron Blake  | January 11, 2011; 10:35 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party  
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