The ailing Democratic Party, its stature as a national party teetering, appears poised to be staggered again Saturday if underdog Sen. Mary Landrieu loses her bid for re-election as expected in Louisiana.
The likely win by Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy in a runoff election would complete a near-sweep this year of Southern Senate seats and governorships, in 10 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy. The Democrats’ only victory was in Virginia, where Sen. Mark Warner barely survived a stunning surge by Republican Ed Gillespie.
The Louisiana race is emblematic of the trouble Democrats faced in 2014 and are likely to confront for years. The party is widely regarded in the South as “hostile and indifferent” to the interests of white working-class voters, said Merle Black, a Southern politics expert at Emory University.
Landrieu, a three-term senator, won 42 percent in the Nov. 4 election. Cassidy got 41 percent, and conservative Rob Maness won 14 percent. Because no one got a majority, the top two finishers vie in Saturday’s runoff.
November’s exit polls illustrate Landrieu’s challenge. Four of five Louisiana voters were worried about the economy, and Landrieu won only 38 percent of the ones who were. She barely got 1 of 5 white votes, about two-thirds of the electorate, and 94 percent of the black vote.
Those patterns were repeated throughout the South. In nine other Southern states with Senate race exit polls, Warner did the best among whites, winning 37 percent. Five Southern Democrats got 22 percent or less.
A Landrieu loss would be the latest blow to Democrats. Other than Virginia, only Florida has a Democratic senator or governor, once Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe retires in January. Sen. Bill Nelson was re-elected to a third term in 2012.
Part of the Republican success results from the uniqueness of 2014. Incumbents in three Southern states where President Obama was unpopular were up for re-election, and they were hobbled by their voting records. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who lost last month, had the worst party-line record – and he had still sided with Obama 90 percent of the time last year.
This year’s Democratic stumbles were the latest chapter in a drama that’s been building for 50 years. Democrats had a stranglehold on the “Solid South” through the 1960s. But as President Lyndon B. Johnson famously said after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
The big shift came in the 1980s. Many black voters had been longtime Republican allies, a carryover from the post-Civil War-era days, when the party championed civil rights while Democrats ruled the segregated South. President Dwight Eisenhower won 39 percent and 32 percent of the black vote in his presidential bids in 1952 and 1956.
Though non-Southern Democrats joined Northeastern and Midwestern Republicans to push civil rights legislation, the Democratic Party became identified as more sympathetic to social change, thanks to the leadership of Johnson and President John F. Kennedy. More conservative and moderate whites became more loyal to Republicans.