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.
Truly championing the working class–and winning these folks’ votes–means plunging in among them. That is what national Democrats areafraid to do. It’s what John Kerry had in mind early in 2004, when hesniffed about how “everybody always makes the mistake of looking South” forDemocratic votes. Despite forty years of steady economic growth in theregion, the South still has more poor, struggling and badly educatedAmericans–black and white–than anywhere else in the country.
Those were the people who won Missouri and Virginia for the Democratsthis year. Not because they finally woke up and realized where theirtrue economic interests lay. McCaskill and Webb won because they tooktheir campaigns directly into the Republicans’ working-classstrongholds. In the Bible Belt Ozarks of Southern Missouri, McCaskillcampaigned hard, emphasizing her blue-collar message without runningaway from her pro-stem cell, pro-choice, anti-war message. It paid offin the biggest Republican county in the state, Greene, where earlypolls showed Republican Jim Talent winning a mere 53 percent of thevote–a huge change from recent elections.
Webb stumped hard in Southwest Virginia, conservative hill country thathas provided Republicans with their statewide margins in Virginia forthree decades now. He did not thicken his accent to charm the folksdown there; he did not excise the Marx and Engels references from hishigh-falutin speeches when he campaigned in the deepest, mostconservative hollows. Like McCaskill, he spoke to folks in the sametone, with the same messages, that he used in liberal urbanstrongholds. It won’t be so easy for Dixiephobic Democrats to make a”forget the South” argument now. As a recent Pew study found, theSouth’s famously militaristic folks have turned against the Iraq warjust as fiercely as the rest of the country. In Virginia, folks werenot distracted by an anti-gay marriage amendment. In Missouri, folkswere not distracted by this year’s hot initiative issue, a stem-cellamendment. For years, they’ve been voting for Republicans with whomthey disagreed on a host of issues; this time, they voted for Democratswith social and foreign-policy views that were often downright liberal.
The war mattered, but the working-class message made the difference forboth McCaskill and Webb. It wasn’t just their policy positions, whichmimicked those of national Democrats in most ways. It was the way theyshowed up — over and over again — in places where Democrats(according to the sages) are supposed to avoid. On Election Day,McCaskill veered from her planned schedule and made the long tripdownstate to shake hands at a polling place in Greene County. LikeWebb, she looked rural and Christian Right folks in the eye, asked fortheir votes, and told them where she stood without trimming the edgesoff her progressive views. And like Webb, she got more votes from thosefolks than any chart, graph, poll or wishful thought could haveconjured up.
No message from this triumphal mid-term election should ring moreloudly than this. The South cannot be written off by the DemocraticParty. More precisely, Southerners cannot be written off by theDemocratic Party. The key to winning the votes of rural andworking-class people in Dixie is the same as everywhere else inAmerica. Nobody said it better than that great old Southern liberalactivist, Strange Fruit author Lillian Smith. “A vote,” she wrote inKillers of the Dream, “…is a small thing to give a man who hasmade you feel revered for the first time in your life.”