This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
By the time Mike Espy took the podium at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, conceding defeat in his U.S. Senate runoff, many observers of this year’s midterms down South had seen quite enough. Like Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, African Americans who’d come agonizingly close to defeating far-right whites in November, Espy had raised hopes of a symbolically monumental victory over white conservatism in—of all unlikely places—Mississippi. He’d done something similar years before, as a much younger man, becoming the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction in 1986.
When Espy fell short, with 46 percent of the vote, it was a high-water mark for Mississippi Democrats in the 21st century. But it was still a heartbreaker—the year’s “final moment in a series of demoralizations of black voters in the South,” Vann Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic. “After a century and change of waiting,” he added, “the tantalizing defeat on the brink of success is especially bitter.” That Espy’s opponent, recently appointed Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, had been making all the wrong kinds of news by voicing a vague fondness for lynchings and (not so vague) for voter suppression, only made things more bitter yet.
So why was Espy up there smiling—convincingly—and calling his campaign “still a historic achievement”? The answer came in his further comments: “We built the largest grassroots organization our state has ever seen in a generation,” he said, quite accurately. “It is not a loss, it’s a movement.”
The 65-year-old, a onetime secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration who’d emerged from a nearly 25-year political hibernation when longtime GOP Senator Thad Cochran resigned last spring, soon proved that his words weren’t mere political boilerplate: Three days after he lost, Espy filed to run against Hyde-Smith again in 2020. Espy, who helped Bill Clinton remold the Democratic Party into a centrist enterprise in the 1980s and 1990s, has always been more of a pragmatist (and opportunist, some would say) than an idealist. He’d never have undertaken a Senate campaign without knowing that the political landscape of the South was changing dramatically. And he wouldn’t be signing up for another run unless he was absolutely convinced that the Democratic near-misses in the marquee 2018 races in Georgia, Florida, and Texas—where white liberal Beto O’Rourke made Ted Cruz sweat his re-election—represented an enduring trend rather than some Trump-era fluke.
Democratic senatorial candidate Mike Espy with supporters after his loss in a runoff election.
For a decade and counting, liberal optimists like me have looked at the rapidly changing demographics and culture of the Sun Belt South—down the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Florida, and along the Gulf to Texas—and predicted the imminent rise of a whole new breed of mostly nonwhite Southern progressives. It seemed like crazy talk to most political observers. After all, the South had alwaysbeen dominated by white, race-haunted reactionaries—Democrats from the Civil War to civil rights, and Republicans thereafter. And when the last white Democratic members of Congress from the Deep South were defeated in the midterm landslides of 2010 and 2014, with every legislative chamber in the former Confederacy firmly Republicanized, liberal pundits and strategists loudly insisted that Democrats give up on the region altogether. “Forget about the whole fetid place,” Michael Tomasky wrote in The Daily Beast after Senator Mary Landrieu was trounced in a Louisiana runoff four Decembers ago. “Write it off. Let the GOPhave it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway.”
But the demise of the Blue Dogs did not spell doom for progressive prospects down South. Quite the contrary: What had actually, and helpfully, died was only the Democrats’ antiquated formula for winning elections in Dixie—the stubborn notion that only white, Clinton-style compromisers could ever hope to carry elections in the region. In the post–civil rights era, the formerly insular Sun Belt South had gradually—and then rapidly—transformed into the most racially and culturally diverse region in the country. But its politics had lagged behind, partly because the Democratic Party still clung to its old Southern stereotypes, convinced despite mounting setbacks that recapturing white Reagan Democrats was still the magic formula for success in a state like Georgia or Texas.
Southern progressives saw it differently: Instead of helping Democrats win, the endless chase for crossover conservative white voters had convinced millions of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and young, liberal white folk to sit out elections. “The Democrats couldn’t see our power, even if we did,” says LaTosha Brown, the Atlanta-based co-founder of Black Voters Matter. And so BVM, along with an array of groups dedicated to turning the South’s rising majority into a political movement—Voto Latino, Texas’s Jolt Initiative, Woke Vote, and BlackPAC, to name a few—set out to prove those Democrats wrong.
The breakthroughs came quickly. In 2017, Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Randall Woodfin—both young, black, left-wing, and championed by Bernie Sanders—won mayoralties in Mississippi and Alabama’s largest cities, Jackson and Birmingham, respectively. In Virginia’s off-year elections, Democrats nearly erased Republicans’ sizable statehouse majority in one fell swoop—sending the state’s first Latina, socialist, and transgender delegates to Richmond along with a dozen more progressive-minded Dems—and elected 38-year-old Justin Fairfax, a progressive African American, as lieutenant governor and chief executive-in-waiting. But the most eye-opening result was yet to come: In Alabama that December, Democrat Doug Jones upset scandal-scarred Republican Roy Moore in a U.S. Senate runoff, propelled into office by groups like Black Voters Matter, whose organizing led to record black turnout for a non-presidential election.
Something mighty strange was afoot down South. And if anybody failed to see it in 2017, they couldn’t miss it in 2018. Seemingly out of nowhere, three unapologetic Deep South liberals—Abrams, Gillum, and O’Rourke—rose up to dominate the midterm political buzz alongside new-wave Northern lefties like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats hadn’t won governorships in Georgia or Florida, or a Senate race in Texas, since the mid-1990s—but this time, with candidates who’d completely thrown away the old centrist playbook, who all sounded far more like a Sanders than a Clinton, they threatened to break the GOPstranglehold right up to election night.
Without the voter suppression unleashed in Southern states when the Supreme Court overturned a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, all three of the South’s new progressive supernovas would likely have won. (And if ex-felons had been allowed to vote in Mississippi, Espy would probably have added a fourth victory to the mix.)
But the near-misses had forced the GOP to spend precious resources to defend Southern seats the party had long counted on winning easily. And the rising progressive tide lifted Democrats to surprising victories down-ballot in federal, state, and local elections.
Ten Southern Republicans in the U.S. House were unseated by Democrats, eight of them women. In heavily gerrymandered Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, Democrats made significant dents in Republican statehouse majorities. Democrats dominated in booming urban areas like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston; in the last, in just one measure of the sea change, 19 black women ran for judgeships in Houston’s Harris County, and all of them won. Statewide in Texas, under-30 voting increased almost five-fold from 2014—while 64 percent of Latinos, who had given the close to majority of their votes four years ago to Republican Senator John Cornyn, backed O’Rourke.
Even the most resolute of Northern Dixiephobes would have a hard time dismissing those outcomes as aberrations. All signs point to a seismic and lasting shift away from white conservative dominance in the large, electoral-vote-rich states of the Sun Belt South. Abrams, who’s likely to run for Senate in 2020—a presidential-election year when Democratic turnout should go through the roof, courtesy of Trump—summed it up in her own defiantly optimistic Election Night speech to a ballroom full of tearful yet empowered folks in Atlanta: “Tonight,” she said, “we have closed the gap between yesterday and tomorrow.”
JUST AS BILL CLINTON WAS the old model for a successful Southern Democrat, Abrams is the standard-bearer for the new Southern liberals. Her political ascendancy was built on something far more substantial than personal charisma. In 2013, as the minority leader of the state House, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, which aimed to convert a substantial portion of the state’s 800,000 eligible-but-unregistered voters of color into political stakeholders. While the Democratic Party still viewed the South as America’s eternal bastion of white supremacy, Abrams had a clear vision of the opportunities created by the Sun Belt South’s rising majority.
Democrats had lost the South, she said, by failing to “place the same premium on voters of color that we do on white voters.” When she announced her gubernatorial bid in 2017, after spearheading the effort to register more than 200,000 new voters, Abrams told The Washington Post, “People think I’m not gonna win because they’re still remembering the Georgia of Gone with the Wind, or maybe they’re conflating it with Selma. The reality is that the Georgia that people think they know is not the Georgia that is.”
The success of the New Georgia Project—despite constant obstacles put in its way by Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the white nationalist who narrowly defeated Abrams for governor—inspired a small army of new grassroots organizers across the South. Unlike liberals in the rest of the country, for whom Donald Trump’s election was a waking nightmare, these activists saw a fresh opportunity to galvanize the untapped and uninspired progressives who abounded in states like Texas. “Trump unmasked and exposed the persistence of white supremacy in America,” says Cliff Albright, the other co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “People were just in dismay. But we’ve been up against this before. It’s what we’ve been organizing against our whole lives.”
The weakness of Democratic parties in the South had already created an opportunity for new leaders—and a new progressive spirit—to emerge. And as Republican majorities in Southern state capitols turned into supermajorities in the landslides that followed Obama’s victory in 2008, the growing extremism of the increasingly unfettered white right was alienating the increasingly diverse populations of the largest Southern states. As they rejected federally funded Medicaid expansion, passed ever more extreme anti-abortion and anti-gay measures, and gutted public schools and services, the GOPmade a widespread backlash inevitable. The main force holding it back was the Democratic Party.
DeJuana Thompson founded Woke Vote in an effort to transform millennial Southerners into candidates and voters.
“There’s been historic underfunding and under-resourcing of Democratic structures in the South,” says DeJuana Thompson, a Birmingham native who founded Woke Vote, one of several post-2016 efforts to transform millennial Southerners into candidates and voters. “Progressive groups and the Democrats found the time and money to engage folks in California, Ohio, New Hampshire, you name it—but they couldn’t find the same time to engage communities in Georgia or Mississippi or Alabama.”
As an organizer for Obama’s winning campaigns in North Carolina and Florida, Thompson had seen what a dose of loving attention could accomplish in the new South. The Obama campaigns had brought out record numbers of young, black, and Latino voters in those states and Virginia. But when the campaigns ended, so did the organizing—leaving a “void of political capital,” as she puts it. What the South needed was year-round grassroots organizing aimed not at electing particular candidates, but at empowering the disenfranchised—an effort that would take place independent of the Democratic Party.
“We had to move away from a model that centers candidates to a model that re-centers voters,” Thompson says. “That’s where we have to be for long-term impact. Politics has long been very transactional and one-sided in communities of color: ‘Let’s help this Democrat win, and then maybe we’ll get something out of it.’ What we’re saying now is: Let’s liberate ourselves with our voting power, and these candidates will benefit from our liberation. And then hold them accountable and make it clear we won’t be there for them in the future if they’re not. Voting has to be a comma, not a period. Election days have to be commas, not periods.”
While groups like Woke Vote, Black Voters Matter, and BlackPAC were building black voting power for the long haul, organizers like Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez of Jolt Initiative and María Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino were doing the same for Latinos in Texas, Florida, and other parts of the South. Nobody expected Democrats to start carrying statewide elections in the near term. But the emergence of super-talented liberals in 2018 accelerated the process. These candidates saw the same untapped potential in Southern voters. And they saw just as clearly why Democrats had been leaving so many potential voters uninspired.
“We keep running these races as Lite Republicans on the belief that if we’re just good enough, just nice enough, just acceptable enough—if we don’t say loud enough what we really believe in—that maybe they’ll like us and vote for us,” Gillum told The Washington Postin June. When I spoke to him in August, shortly before he defied the experts and defeated three well-funded white centrists for the gubernatorial nomination in Florida, he elaborated: “But when Republican voters have the choice between the real thing and the fake one, they go with the real one every time. Meanwhile our own voters have no motivation or stimulation to turn out. Why? Because they’re not sure we’re truly for them, either.”
“The only way to change that,” Gillum added, “is by not shrinking from who we are and what we believe as Democrats. Putting our flag in the ground and giving people something to vote for and not just vote against—that’s how we’ll win.”
While Abrams and Gillum were giving ’em something to vote for in Georgia and Florida, O’Rourke was turning Texas politics inside out with the same philosophy. Speaking to an NPRreporter this summer, he borrowed a classic line from legendary populist Jim Hightower to explain his approach: “The only thing that you’re going to find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos,” he said. “You have to tell the people that you want to serve what it is you believe and what you are going to do on their behalf.”
This new breed of Southern Democrat is more likely to pick fights with the NRA—as Gillum rather famously did as mayor of Tallahassee—than to don fatigues and round up reporters for a hunting photo-op. They’ll tell you that Medicare for All is a no-brainer, and so is same-sex marriage. They’re bracingly frank about the role that racism has played in stifling progress down South. They don’t have to rattle on forever about “hope and change,” because they embody it. And that’s why they, along with the organizers who nearly lifted them to victory in 2018, are the future for a region so long stuck in its past.
IT’S HARD TO THINK OF a time in American history when the politics of a region have evolved so quickly. In 2020, it’s likely that Democrats will compete full-throttle in the five biggest Southern states—with Texas and Georgia joining Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida as battlegrounds. Alabama and Mississippi, with Doug Jones running for re-election and Mike Espy re-engaging Cindy Hyde-Smith, will both have competitive U.S. Senate races, though Democrats face steeper obstacles in those states over the long term.
None of this means, of course, that these states will soon be flipping firmly from red to blue—none but Virginia, which now appears to be almost fully flipped. It took 20 years, after all, for Republicans to start sweeping the South in presidential elections post–civil rights. And by turning gerrymandering and voter suppression into dark arts, Southern Republicans have built themselves some powerful fortresses against the encroachment of rising progressive majorities. In state legislatures, the GOPconstructed such formidable majorities over time that it’ll be virtually impossible to erase them in a couple of cycles. In most of the Sun Belt South, they’ll still have the upper hand after 2020 when it’s time for decennial redistricting.
Just as Bill Clinton was the old model for successful Southern Democrat, Stacey Abrams is the standard bearer for the new Southern liberals.
And in the other half of the South, which I’ve conveniently failed to mention, the future still looks a lot like the past. States in the “interior South” like Arkansas and Oklahoma have attracted considerably fewer new residents of color, and Democratic victories there will remain fewer and farther between. Politically and culturally, the South is splitting in two. The big five Sun Belt states will come to resemble their increasingly Democratic-leaning Western cousins—Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada—while the rest of the former Confederacy forms a solid conservative core in the heartland, joining Prairie states like Nebraska along with Rust Belt states like Ohio and Indiana. Overall, that’s likely to be good news for Democrats; Texas, for instance, already has twice the electoral votes of Ohio, and is projected to pick up two or three more after the 2020 census while Ohio loses one or two.
But while demographics and electoral votes are important, they can’t accurately measure the impact of the emphatic break with history that’s under way in the largest states of the South. What will it mean in Washington, for instance, when Georgia starts sending Stacey Abramses to Congress? (Already, in 2018, gun-control advocate Lucy McBath was elected to fill Newt Gingrich’s old House seat.) Southern legislators have traditionally formed a bulwark against progressive policymaking—and they’ve kept Congress disproportionately white and conservative while the country’s population gets browner and more center-left. And what will it mean to historically downtrodden and forgotten people of color, not to mention less-privileged whites, when Austin and Tallahassee and Raleigh become laboratories of democracy rather than places where democracy goes to die?
The only thing that could stop these historic transformations from happening over time is a Republican Party that stops looking for ways to hold back the future and radically changes its ways. While a few GOP leaders—Rick Perry in Texas, who signed one of the first state-level DREAMActs while tamping down his party’s anti-immigrant extremism, and Rick Scott in Florida, who’s assiduously and successfully courted his state’s rising Latino vote—have shown some foresight, their fellow Republicans have painted themselves into an ideological corner that’ll be hard to escape. How do you woo young progressive voters of color while continuing to rely on older whites who’ve become accustomed to far-right governance, and who live in fear of losing the unearned privileges long granted to white Southerners?
The urban centers of the Sun Belt won’t stop growing, and becoming more diverse and more progressive, any time in the foreseeable future. The rural South is as stagnant as the rest of rural America—and increasingly, in a state like Texas, that’s all the Republicans will have. One of the most startling assessments of the new reality that I’ve seen recently came from Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “If Republicans can’t keep Democratic numbers below 60 percent in urban Texas, winning elections is going to be much more difficult going forward.” Let that sink in: Republicans in Texas, the country’s largest Republican redoubt, reduced to cooking up ways to hold the Democratic vote in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio below 60 percent.
That, my friends, is not a political shake-up. It’s an earthquake. And the reverberations will be felt for generations to come.