It is hard to escape the conclusion that Democrats in the South – on the skids for the last generation or two – have not hit bottom yet. For the second time in two election cycles, a state party in the region has a Senate nominee who it is embarrassed to embrace.
In 2010, it was Alvin Greene, a young unemployed military veteran without visible means of support, who won the Democratic Senate primary in South Carolina. This year, the cause célèbre is Mark Clayton, who won the party’s Senate primary Aug. 2 in Tennessee. Clayton is an officer in a pro-life, pro-marriage group that the state Democratic Party has described as “a known hate group.”
About the only positive for the Democrats is that these unwanted candidacies show what the base vote for the party is in that particular state. In South Carolina, Greene drew 28% in his hopeless challenge to Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. Clayton will probably do little better in his contest this fall in Tennessee against GOP incumbent Bob Corker.
These cases highlight a basic problem for the Democrats in many Southern states: They have virtually no political “bench” anymore. The Tennessee Democratic Party admitted as much in an Aug. 3 release disavowing Clayton. “Many Democrats in Tennessee knew nothing about any of the candidates in the race, so they voted for the person at the top of the ticket,” the release read. The state party has urged Tennessee Democrats to cast a write-in vote in November for someone other than Clayton.
Not surprisingly, the South is now almost the opposite of the solidly Democratic region that it once was. In recent years, major statewide offices and large numbers of legislative seats across the region have moved virtually en masse to the Republicans. Even at the congressional level, Southern Democrats are at a low ebb, with the party emerging from the rubble of the 2010 election with only 40 of the region’s pre-2012 allotment of 142 House seats (or 28%).
Along the way, white voters across the region have deserted the Democratic Party in droves – a mass exodus evident in this year’s primary turnouts. In the Tennessee Senate primary, more than 450,000 ballots were cast on the Republican side, compared to barely 160,000 on the Democratic – a GOP advantage of nearly 3 to 1. Democrats, as mentioned, nominated a political unknown objectionable to the party, while Republicans chose an incumbent senator.
In Mississippi, turnout this March for the Senate primary favored the Republicans by a ratio of better than 3 to 1. Democrats picked a political non-entity named Albert N. Gore Jr. - a retired Methodist minister, not the former vice president - to oppose the incumbent GOP senator.
And in the late July Senate runoff in Texas, the Republican contest drew more than 1.1 million voters, the Democratic race less than 250,000 – a Republican edge approaching 5 to 1. Republicans selected a former state solicitor general and “tea party” favorite over Texas’ powerful lieutenant governor. Democrats nominated a former state legislator who last held elected office nearly a decade ago.
To be sure, Democrats are fielding top notch Senate candidates in Florida and Virginia in the form of two-term incumbent Bill Nelson and former Gov. Tim Kaine, respectively. Yet these exceptions underscore the basic trend. With Nelson and Kaine, the Democrats are competitive in both states. Without them, the party would probably have little chance of holding either seat.