The solid Republican South has begun to show cracks in recent elections, changes due to both demographic shifts and to reaction to President Donald Trump.
Stacey Abrams, an African American state representative with the support of less than a quarter of white voters, rode heavy minority turnout to a 1% loss for governor in Georgia in 2018.
Beto O’Rourke’s close call against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year is by far the best Democratic result in Texas in 20 years.
There was also the 2017 upset special election Senate win by Doug Jones in Alabama, North Carolina’s election of a Democratic governor and attorney general in 2016, and Democratic congressional gains in 2018.
But what if the narrative of Trump’s political martyrdom, railing against his “lynching,” and the Fox News characterizations of a deep state culture war actually stop or reverse Democratic gains in this year’s off-year elections in the South? Although the daily news cycle seems to be boxing the president’s defenders into a corner, it may also be his key to reviving his Southern base for the election in November.
The transformation of the South from one-party blue to red took 50 years. After the 1960’s civil rights movement, Southern whites who identified as Democrat dropped almost 50 points. In a long evolution, through George Wallace and reaction to African American voter enfranchisement, the Reagan realignment, the politicization of the Southern evangelical church, Newt Gingrich’s Contract with American and the Tea Party revolt of 2010, analysts saw the Republican Party becoming the party of the South.
Today, there’s a red wall in the United States Senate, where the eleven states of the Confederacy plus neighboring Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky give Republicans a 24-to-4 advantage before a single seat is contested outside the region.
Which brings us to this year’s November elections in three Southern states that Trump won easily in 2016.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevins, until recently the most unpopular incumbent in the nation after battling public school teachers and the state Legislature, is facing the Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, son of a popular former governor.
In Mississippi, Jim Hood, a four-term attorney general, the only statewide elected Democrat, is vying with incumbent Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, wounded by a brutal primary fight. Hood is a conservative who cleans his guns and drives a pickup to church in his ads.
In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has navigated between reversing his predecessor’s deep tax cuts to restore educational funding and expand Medicaid, while signing anti-abortion legislation.
Trump’s response is to fight back, barnstorming all three states to ratchet up the anger of his base over impeachment and get out the vote in notoriously low-turnout off-year elections. And each of the GOP candidates is likewise seizing on impeachment.
Bevins recently called a news conference on his Capitol steps, daring his opponent to say whether he supported impeachment, as state pundits noted a tightening of the polls as GOP voters return to the fold because of their anger over the impeachment hearings.
In Louisiana, Trump claimed his recent rally there forced Gov. Edwards into a runoff against a wealthy Republican businessman, Eddie Rispone. Rispone is already out with new ads accusing Edwards of being part of a witch hunt.
In Mississippi, the state GOP is getting ready for a presidential visit before Election Day, a development that Democrats, already a beleaguered minority party, dread.
Watch any of the president’s recent rallies and the heated rhetoric aimed at the impeachment process in Washington seems to reach new levels with every campaign trip.
And there is evidence that it does gin up the base. A Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, before the recent special congressional election helped increase GOP turnout significantly in a close Republican win.
Maybe this is overreaction. Virginia may turn its Legislature blue in November, driven by the issue of gun control. And who knows what the next surreal news cycle will bring.
But if impeachment turns out to be Trump’s key for reviving his Southern base, then this November could serve as a cautionary tale for those who assume impeachment is the last straw for the Trump presidency in 2020.
Paul Stekler is a documentary filmmaker and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.