Just one year ago–even a few months ago–the unanimous view among the Democrats’ strategic sages was that the only drama in the South this fall would be whether the region’s few remaining statewide Democratic officeholders could hold on to their jobs. Could Senator Bill Nelson hold off Katherine Harris, America’s tackiest theocrat, in Florida? Could Governor Phil Bredesen show his conservative cojones by cutting enough folks off state healthcare to hold on in ultra-red Tennessee?

After the 2004 wipeout of five Democratic Senate seats in the South, many national Democrats were pleased to think that their long-running debate–can we win in Dixie, and should we even try?–had been settled. Settled in the negative, that is. Thomas Schaller’s recent book, Whistling Past Dixie, brought together years’ worth of poll-tested memoranda in calling for the Democratic Party to kiss off the nation’s largest region.

On November 7 the South–a k a Jesusland–showed how wrong that conclusion was. If the Senate lands in Democratic hands, it will be thanks in large part to Claire McCaskill’s triumph in Missouri and to Jim Webb’s prevailing in the recount in Virginia over the man who was once conservatives’ great hope for the White House in 2008. It will not be thanks to the candidate who ran the sort of Southern campaign the sages called “perfect”–Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, who went far beyond triangulation and out-Republicaned his opponent with hard lines on gay marriage, immigration, national defense, guns and an array of Bible quotes that could whip John Ashcroft in a holiness contest any day.

McCaskill, a sharp-tongued former prosecutor, and Webb, a tough-as-beef-jerky former GOP Naval Secretary, are nobody’s idea of wild-eyed liberals. But they both ran campaigns that stubbornly bucked conventional wisdom. Running against hard-core Christian-conservative incumbents, neither triangulated. They were unwaveringly prochoice; called for sharp changes in Iraq policy; opposed anti-gay marriage hoo-ha (Virginia) and stem-cell nonsense (Missouri); and ran as old-fashioned, blue-collar, labor-embracing economic populists. “Once again,” McCaskill said in her victory speech, “the Democratic Party has claimed Harry Truman’s Senate seat for the working people of Missouri.”

For the working people. It’s a sequence of words Democrats have continued to mouth, but it’s been a long time since anybody living in anything smaller than a McMansion had much call to believe it. McCaskill and Webb took their campaigns directly into the Republicans’ working-class strongholds. In the Bible Belt Ozarks of southern Missouri, McCaskill emphasized her blue-collar message without running away from her progressive positions. Stumping hard in southwest Virginia, conservative hill country that has provided Republicans with their statewide margins for three decades, Webb did not thicken his accent or excise the Marx and Engels references from his speeches. He spoke to folks in the same tone, with the same messages, that he used in liberal urban strongholds.

Even the Ford defeat, in which race-baiting played a major role, has something to teach. Yes, the old prejudices remain shockingly strong. But there is also the fact that in a supposedly solid-red Southern state, an African-American Democrat from a well-known, ethically challenged (and liberal) political family nearly beat a conservative Republican for a US Senate seat. A whole lot of white Tennesseans voted for their first black person for a major office; a whole lot of others considered it for the first time. It will never be as hard for them to pull that trigger again.

No message from the midterm election should ring more loudly than this: The South must not be written off. The key to winning the votes of rural and working-class people in Dixie is the same as everywhere else. Nobody said it better than that great Southern activist, Strange Fruit author Lillian Smith. A vote, she wrote in Killers of the Dream, is a small thing to give to a person who has shown you respect.