How to survive as a Democrat in the South: Be independent, or run as one

Running as an Independent could be one of the few options left for Southern Democrats who want to fight Republican gains in the region, according to an outgoing member.

Southern voters "see the Democratic Party as a liberal institution that wants to spend their money recklessly, that doesn’t honor their social values and that has a very different view of the world," said Alabama Rep. Artur Davis (D).

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"It's hard for local Democratic candidates to break clear of that," Davis added. "Some [of those candidates] who are thinking about competing in the South may have to look at running as Independents."

Leaving the party would help immunize candidates against the GOP's attacks on the Democrats' Washington leadership, but it would also mean the loss of important campaign infrastructure.

Given the party's performance in the November elections, however, it may be a tempting strategy.

More than a third of the 63 House seats Democrats lost in November are in the old Confederacy's 11 states. Regional Democrats owe many of those losses to Republicans who were able to nationalize the tenor of their races and lump their opponents in with the party's unpopular leadership, several members and strategists told The Hill.

Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.), a Democrat-turned-Republican, was equally pessimistic about his old party's chances of reversing its Southern slide.

"There's not a way back for Southern Democrats as a party," he said. "But there's a way back for an individual Democrat who is known as a good person, a good public servant, and in certain statewide offices they may be able to prevail. But it won’t be that way for a few years, I don't think."

The 22 House seats the party lost in the South were just part of its seemingly ever-loosening grip on the region's politics.

And dramatic reversals have continued to hound Democrats at the state level since Nov. 2.

The GOP has invited the defections of state lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, which has helped it tighten control over the legislatures. In Georgia, for example, at least nine Democratic state lawmakers have switched to the Republican Party since the November elections.

Some crossed the aisle out of concern that having President Obama on the ticket in 2012 could hurt their reelection chances, according to one strategist.

"That's part of it," said Quinn Hudson, an Atlanta-based Democratic strategist. "He tends to be a good booga bear for the Republicans."

This shift toward nationalization of state politics runs against conventional wisdom. "Tip O’Neill said all politics are local. This happens to be an exception," said Griffith, who lost his reelection bid running as a Republican.

"I think what's changed is our electorate is becoming a lot more sophisticated," Griffith went on. "They have a lot more access to information, and they realize that their educational system is totally dependent on the federal government, their healthcare — Medicare, Medicaid — all of these programs that we think are maybe state-administered actually come down from the federal government. So I think the statewide issues in most areas of the South are going to take a backseat to national issues."

"Cable news has nationalized the political environment [and] made it near impossible for candidates to differentiate themselves from the national party," said Davis. "If you're a politically interested voter, you're reading a lot more about what’s happening [in Washington] than what your state legislature is doing back home."

Southerners are forming voting patterns based on national issues more frequently as a result, Davis said, and that doesn't help Democrats.

“If you're [Louisiana Democratic Rep.] Charlie Melancon, you're [Alabama Democratic Rep.] Bobby Bright, it may be that you do everything you can to make clear your independence from the national party, but voters who are listening to cable TV are hearing about a national party that’s doing things they don't like."

Republicans know they have a proven strategy in tying Southern Democrats to their national leadership, even when the members aren't ones who toe the party line.

"They're going to try and do whatever they can to knock people off, because they have nothing to run on," said Melancon, who lost his bid for the Senate and will leave Congress in January. "[Louisiana Republican Sen.] David Vitter's a perfect example."

In one instance during Vitter's hard-fought Senate race, the Republican incumbent sent a campaign mailer to voters accusing Melancon of having voted for the Democrats' healthcare reform bill. In fact, Melancon voted against it — twice.

"He had the money and the ability to do it, so he did it," Melancon said.

Democrats can expect more of that in the future, Melancon added. "It's a sad commentary for the way political campaigns are run in this day and time, but it's a fact of life."

Davis, who is leaving Congress in January after four terms, said voters' behavior won't likely change until the national environment once again favors Democrats.

"This is the lowest point that I think that Democrats have had in the South in my lifetime," he said. "And I don’t see it getting better barring something dramatic.

"I think, frankly, what it would take to give Democrats a viable chance to win in the South, you would probably have to have an Eastern, moderate Republican president who is a disaster."