The true lesson of the midterms is that Republicans can no longer rely on states of the old Confederacy for unqualified supportby Diane Roberts / November 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Beto O’Rourke lost his bid for Texas’s US senate seat; Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams did not, in the end, make history by becoming the first African American governors of Florida and Georgia. We are still waiting for the “New South” to emerge: a racially integrated, tolerant South, liberated from fundamentalist Christianity, finally freed from the old prejudices that animated the place from the Civil War, through Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. As Southern progressives know, change takes a long time. Yet the recent midterm elections suggest the rock-ribbed conservatism that has ruled the American South for 50 years is beginning to soften. Republicans can no longer rely on the states of the old Confederacy for unqualified support.
Close doesn’t count, except in horseshoes and hand grenades, but Beto O’Rourke stunned the nation by coming within two percentage points of Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. Two days after the election, the Guardian quoted Bethany Albertson, a political science professor at the University of Texas: “If you look at the top line and see O’Rourke losing, you’re missing the point. No Democrat has come close in Texas in decades, voter turnout was way up, and young people who have never voted before were drawn for the first time into the democratic process.”
The tall, handsome, some say “Kennedyesque,” O’Rourke is now spoken of as a possible presidential candidate in 2020. Likewise, Andrew Gillum, an unapologetically leftist Democrat, has become a big time player, with his ability to raise a lot of money both from small donors and big beasts such as George Soros and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. Though he lost the Florida governor’s race by a whisker, Gillum forced a recount and received more votes than any Democratic candidate in the history of the state—which was, lest we forget, part of the Confederacy, the third state to secede in 1861.
Florida voters also passed a state constitutional amendment giving more than 1.5m ex-felons the right to vote, overturning a set of Jim Crow-era laws and racist policies designed to disenfranchise African Americans, who have always been disproportionately convicted of crimes. Of course, not all former felons will register, and not all will be Democrats, but if the Republican-controlled legislature can be forced to implement the measure, Florida’s electorate could change from purple to blue. Gillum only lost to Donald Trump’s hand-picked candidate Ron DeSantis by 32,000 votes out of nine million.
Republicans may be looking at the beginning of the end of their lock on the South. Democrats took congressional seats from Republican incumbents in Florida, Texas, Virginia, and South Carolina. In Georgia, gun control activist Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, the black teenager shot to death by a white man over the “loud music” supposedly playing on his car stereo, won a seat in the House of Representatives once held by arch-conservative Newt Gingrich. Stacey Abrams, the Yale-educated Atlanta lawyer who nearly knocked off Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State in the governor’s race, is currently working to expose the massive voter suppression that went on before anyone ever touched a ballot. Hundreds of thousands of potential voters were kicked off the rolls for not voting in the last election, “sloppy” signatures, and other dubious reasons. Unfortunately, Jim Crow is not quite dead around here.
Still, in blood red Mississippi, an African American Democrat named Mike Espy, a former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton, has forced his Republican opponent Cindy Hyde-Smith into a runoff on 27th November. Hyde-Smith is a gaffe-prone Trumpist who has made unwise remarks about making it harder to vote on college campuses, what with them being full of “liberals,” and attending “public hangings” (not funny in a state with a long history of lynchings). A few years back, she posted a photo of herself wearing a Confederate soldier’s cap and holding a Civil War-era rifle which she captioned: “Mississippi history at its best.”
Hyde-Smith will probably still win—Mississippi is one of the most reliably Republican states in the nation, and, for many whites, gestures toward the Lost Cause help rather than hurt. Nevertheless, polls show many Mississippians are embarrassed by their reputation as racist red-necks, and could vote for Espy.
What’s clear is that the Democratic Party, long shut out of power in the South, is making something of a comeback in Dixie. Disgust with Trump’s antics—he blamed California for its terrible wildfires, castigated the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and instead of expressing gratitude to American troops serving abroad on Thanksgiving Day, praised himself, saying, “I made a tremendous difference in our country”—may push some voters toward the resistance. But more important is the demographic change. The South is becoming more urban and more ethnically diverse. While rural white voters cling to their guns, their religion and their Trump, their fellow citizens—even in the place where, as William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past”—are determined to move on.