Democrats losing too many white voters, says civil rights leader

A leading civil rights leader in Congress believes the Democratic Party is losing too many white voters.

In an interview, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Democrats need to "go all out" to win back white Southern voters before the next election.

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White voters preferred Republican candidates by almost two-to-one in the midterms last year. Their support helped the GOP win 22 seats in the states that make up the Old Confederacy. The Democrats' only pickup in the region was the New Orleans district where the party holds a registration advantage.

Since November, there have been a string of defections by Southern Democratic state lawmakers, which has prompted renewed speculation about the party’s future in the region. Former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis (D) said Democrats should even consider running as Independents if they want to succeed.

Lewis, who was a civil rights activist before being elected to Congress in 1986, said he's concerned the party is losing its diversity, which will make it difficult to reclaim the lost seats.

"We've got to go all out and get white voters, especially white men, to come back to the Democratic Party," he told The Ballot Box. "I just think it's important for the Democratic Party to roll out and try to reveal itself and not become a party that is split along racial lines."

But one Democratic strategist said white voters are "up for grabs" and predicted the party will rebound with President Obama at the top of the ticket in 2012.

"The difference between now and 2010 is in 2012 [President] Obama will be in control of his message," said John Anzalone, a pollster with offices in Alabama and Washington.

"In 2010, he was not only not on the ticket, but really wasn't being welcomed around, and so in a way he was kind of muted in being able to control what he is so good at. I think the fact that he is controlling his message [in 2012] will be helpful to Democrats and possibly bring more white voters to the table."

Obama won the White House in 2008 with the support of more white voters than Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the previous Democratic presidential nominee, attracted in 2004.

Moreover, Obama was more popular than Kerry with whites in North Carolina and Virginia, two Southern states he won in the general election.

Obama's appeal wasn’t universal in the region. In states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, he fared worse than Kerry, according to exit polls.

White voters subsequently abandoned the Democrats two years later.

In last year's midterm election, white voters favored the GOP by a margin of 60 percent to 37, according to the national exit poll conducted by Edison Research. It was a higher percentage than the margin claimed by the GOP during its 1994 landslide victory.

Anzalone argued that margin was reflective of the "political environment" and didn't mean there was a "death sentence" on Southern Democrats.

"We had this same conversation after the 1994 elections," he said, before citing a series of Democratic victories over the last two decades. "The reality is that white voters are up for grabs for Democrats.

"You've got to be patient, you've got to build your argument. Will it come immediately after a big swing like this? Not with big gains," he said.

White voters will come back to the party when they feel "comfortable" with a particular Democratic candidate, Anzalone predicted.

"If we have quality candidates out there, you're going to see us slowly pick off seats just like we did post-1994," he said.

African-Americans remain the core of the Democratic Party's Southern base. But the recent election of two Southern black Republicans to the House raised the possibility that even the party's core support is shaky. 

Lewis said he wasn't concerned about a "mass migration" of African-Americans to the GOP.

"[Florida Rep.] Allen West got elected from a majority-white district — a sort of middle-to-conservative district. And he had the backing and support of the Tea Party; he raised more than $4 million," Lewis said. "I went down to campaign against him for [Democratic Rep.] Ron Klein, who I thought was a much better member and a much better candidate and should have remained in the Congress.

"And the young man, Tim Scott, from South Carolina, came from a solid Republican district, for the most part. And he succeeded a Republican."

Some Democrats, such as Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.), have predicted Obama's reelection prospects look daunting.

"It's realistic for our party to understand the enormous challenge we're going to have to get him back in the White House in 2012," Cleaver, the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said recently.

Lewis predicted Obama will help the party win in the South in 2012. 

"I think the president will get out there and run a tough, aggressive race," he said. "I notice his standing in the polls keeps going up, his approval rating is about 50 percent now."

Lewis, who initially backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary before endorsing Obama, said the economy would improve in the next two years and boost the president’s reelection prospects.

"I'm very hopeful and optimistic," he said.

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