Just one year ago–hell, even a few months ago–the unanimous viewamong the Democrats’ strategic sages was that the only drama in theSouth this fall would be whether the region’s few remaining statewideDemocratic office-holders could hold on to their jobs. Could SenatorBill Nelson hold off Katherine Harris, America’s tackiest theocrat, inFlorida? Could Gov. Phil Bredesen show his conservative cojones bycutting enough folks off state health care to hold on in ultra-redTennessee?
After the 2004 wipeout of five Democratic Senate seats in the South,many national Democrats were pleased to think that their long-runningdebate–can we win in the Dixie, and should we even try?–had beensettled. Settled in the negative, that is. Thomas Schaller’s recentbook, Whistling Past Dixie, brought together years’ worth ofpoll-tested memoranda in calling for the Democratic Party to kiss offthe nation’s largest region. It was just a more polite version of one ofthe most popular post-election blogs from the bitterness of late 2004:”Fuck the South.”
Tonight, the South–aka “Jesusland”–has a message for thosenational Democratic wizards: No, fuck you. If the Senate lands inDemocratic hands, it’ll be thanks to Claire McCaskill’s triumph inMissouri and Jim Webb’s stunning win in Virginia over the man who wasonce conservative Republicans’ great hope for the White House in 2008.It will not be thanks to the candidate who ran the sort of Southerncampaign the sages called “perfect”–Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee,who went far beyond triangulation and out-Republicaned his opponentwith hard lines on gay marriage, immigration, national defense, guns,and an array of Bible quotes that could whip John Ashcroft in aholiness contest any day.
McCaskill, a hard-nosed former prosecutor, and Webb, atough-as-beef-jerky former Republican cabinet officer, are nobody’sidea of wild-eyed liberals. But they both ran campaigns that stubbornlybucked conventional wisdom for Southern Democrats running statewide inthe last two decades. Running against hardcore Christian conservativeincumbents, neither of them triangulated. They were unwaveringlypro-choice; they called for sharp changes in Iraq policy; McCaskill opposedanti-gay marriage hoo-ha; and they ran as old-fashioned, blue-collar,labor-embracing economic populists. As what used to be calledDemocrats, that is.
“It’s back to the traditional Democratic Party, which was founded onthe health of the working person,” Webb told me earlier this fall. Inher victory speech this morning, McCaskill highlighted the same theme:”Once again,” she said, “the Democratic Party has claimed HarryTruman’s Senate seat for the working people of Missouri.”
For the working people. It’s a sequence of words Democrats havecontinued to mouth, but it’s been a long time since anybody living inanything smaller than a McMansion had much call to believe it.