Politics & Government

Democratic hopefuls come into a GOP region

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, speak with each other on stage shortly before the start of the first Democratic presidential debate at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on Tuesday. Clinton turned in a bracing, formidable, approachable, nearly flawless performance that was in almost every respect stronger than any she delivered in 2007-2008.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, speak with each other on stage shortly before the start of the first Democratic presidential debate at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on Tuesday. Clinton turned in a bracing, formidable, approachable, nearly flawless performance that was in almost every respect stronger than any she delivered in 2007-2008. Bloomberg

The South will be front and center when the Democratic presidential candidates and national media gather Friday night at Winthrop University for a nationally televised forum.

But if history is a guide, the region – at least most of it – will become little more than an afterthought for the party’s eventual nominee.

When Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley come to Rock Hill, they’ll enter a region which this week found itself in an even tighter Republican grip.

Tuesday’s victory by Republican Matt Bevin in Kentucky will leave Democrats with only one Southern governor. And that governor, Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe, saw voters in his state deny Democrats control of the Senate.

It’s going to be a long haul for Democrats in the South.

Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon

And Republicans dominate the South’s congressional delegations. When Sanders of Vermont takes the stage at Winthrop, he’ll be the only Democratic U.S. senator within miles.

“It’s going to be a long haul for Democrats in the South,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist. “In the next election cycle, they might make a few gains in close seats, but the gains are going to be incremental at best. You’re not going to see a big swing anytime soon.”

All Democratic officials will give you the same lip service, ‘We need to compete everywhere.’ But … It just hasn’t worked out.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who will moderate Friday’s forum, plans to ask the candidates about their party’s fortunes in the region. Those fortunes haven’t improved even after Democrats held their 2012 convention in Charlotte.

“There was all this lip service paid to how the new South was a Democratic South,” she said. “(But) there are still major races in Southern states where the Democratic Party basically isn’t even fielding candidates. And that is a failure of what’s supposed to be a national party that I haven’t heard any of these candidates address meaningfully.

“All Democratic officials will give you the same lip service, ‘We need to compete everywhere.’ But … it just hasn’t worked out.”

Political scientist Merle Black of Emory University, an expert in Southern politics, said national politics has a growing influence.

“The Democratic brand and the Republican brand go from top to bottom now,” he said. “The national Democratic Party is moving so far to the left on a whole range of issues. The more Democrats do that, the harder it is for them to win on the state and local level.”

In 2008, the year Democrat Barack Obama first won as president, Democrats carried three Southern states, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia. Four years later, North Carolina went Republican. Democrats are expected to focus on those three states next year.

“It really only takes two states to go barely purple for a Democrat to win the White House,” Huffmon said.

For longtime S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, that’s not enough.

I am under no illusions that we will be able to change this overnight. But the bottom line is we can change it if we act.

S.C. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter

“I want to hear the three candidates speak to a commitment … that involves working the entire South and not cherry picking two to three states,” she said.

The chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Southern Caucus, she’ll host a town meeting at Winthrop Friday on reversing her party’s fortune in the region. The answer, she said, is engaging voters at the local level and hooking millennials on issues such as climate change.

“The DNC Southern Caucus has been trying to get the DNC to pay attention to the South to not write it off,” she said. “I am under no illusions that we will be able to change this overnight. But the bottom line is we can change it if we act.

“We speak Southern and we can organize.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

Watch the Democratic forum

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley will participate Friday in the “First in the South Democratic Candidates Forum” at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow will moderate the forum, which runs from 8-10 p.m. and airs on MSNBC. Coverage begins at 6 p.m.

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