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Death of the 'Yellow Dog' Democrat

Southern Democrats like Lyndon Johnson were once the norm, but the GOP is increasingly winning over "Yellow Dog" voters.(National Archive/Newsmakers)

photo of Reid Wilson
August 25, 2011

Republicans are always critical of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for leaving some animals on the Endangered Species List too long. But the party is working hard to add one more mammal to the list of those on the brink of extinction: the Yellow Dog Democrat.

The Yellow Dog, a voter who would sooner cast a ballot for a scruffy canine than a Republican, once roamed the American South, virtually shutting Republicans out of elected office in the century after the Civil War. But that run of electoral victories has come firmly to a close. Voters across the country are beginning to associate their local candidates with their respective national parties, making barren the hunting grounds Yellow Dogs once found fertile.

It wasn't always this way. Democrats had an unprecedented run of success in the South; between 1880 and 1948, Republicans won a grand total of five southern states -- Tennessee voted for Warren G. Harding in 1920, and Herbert Hoover won four Southern states in 1928.


Later in the 20th century, a seemingly permanent alliance between traditional white Democrats and African-American Democrats held the line. Alabama and Mississippi both went more than 100 years without electing a Republican governor. It wasn't until 1961 -- 48 years after voters were first able to directly elect their senators -- that one of the former Confederate states sent a Republican to the Senate: John Tower took advantage of a divided Democratic party to win special election for the seat Lyndon Johnson vacated to become vice president. Five years later, Strom Thurmond put another crack in the Southern Democratic wall when he switched parties in mid-term and won his seat back as a Republican.

The alliance that gave Democrats so much success in the South also sowed the seeds of its eventual breakdown. White voters who traditionally voted with Democrats grew much more conservative than the national party, especially during civil-rights-era debates that pitted Southern Democrats against Northerners and Republicans in the 1950s and 1960s. Black voters and their elected representatives, meanwhile, allied with more liberal Northerners.

The ideological schism, in practice, established three parties in state legislatures across the South: Conservative Republicans, conservative white Democrats, and liberal African-American Democrats. That same ideological and racial breakdown characterized Southern congressional delegations for decades.

But the advent of more readily-available media has changed the relationships between Southern white voters and their elected officials. The faster the news cycle and the more national the focus, the more voters compare their own officials to national party leadership. When an election becomes a referendum on a party rather than an individual candidate, it turns out poorly for party members whose careers depend on standing against their own side on key votes.

To that end, Southern white voters have turned on the conservative Democratic incumbents they once backed by overwhelming margins. In the 16 states that the Census Bureau considers the South, 20 of 32 senators are Republicans. Exclude Democratic-heavy states like Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia, and the numbers are more stark: Just six Democrats -- Kay Hagan, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, Bill Nelson, Mark Pryor, and Mary Landrieu -- hold Senate seats south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

There remains a big ideological split between Northern and Southern Democrats. Southerners provided most of the votes against key initiatives on President Obama's agenda in the 111th Congress; of the 34 Democrats who voted against the health-care reform bill, 19 hailed from the South. Seven of the 11 Democrats who voted against the stimulus package were Southerners.

And yet those differences with the national party -- along with other clear contrasts incumbent House members tried to draw -- weren't enough to convince Southern voters that conservative Democrats were any different from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, as her Republican detractors never miss an opportunity to point out. Those who lost reelection bids in 2010 included Reps. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., who initially debated whether to run as a Democrat or a Republican; Jim Marshall, D-Ga.; Chet Edwards, D-Texas; and Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn. -- three of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. Even Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who confided to a reporter just days before the election that he had voted for John McCain in 2008, was defeated.

This year, signs are rampant of the continuing Democratic decline in the South. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., leader of the Congressional Blue Dog Coalition, will not seek another term. Redistricting proposals passed by the North Carolina Legislature put four Democrats in jeopardy, and a plan in Georgia would draw Rep. John Barrow, the state's remaining white Democrat, out of his seat.

Mississippi Democrats nominated Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree for governor on Tuesday, the first African-American to win a major party's gubernatorial nomination in the state. But he is expected to get clobbered in November's general election by Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant. That's one better than Louisiana, where Democrats have yet to recruit even a second-tier candidate with the election less than two months away.

The proliferation of news outlets, especially those with a partisan tilt, has led to an increased focus on party leadership in Washington, rather than on the individual records of candidates at home. That means a candidate's party identification speaks louder than decades of a conservative voting record, and it's why someone like Taylor could lose to a political neophyte like Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss.

No longer is voting against party leadership on a few key votes a winning political strategy. Conservatism is no longer a nuanced political ideology; now, in the South, being a conservative is synonymous in voters' minds with being a member of the Republican Party. The Yellow Dog Democrat so prevalent for more than a century is now a dog that just won't hunt.



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