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The Death of the Southern White Democrat Hurts African-Americans the Most

Flickr/Savannah River Site

Not long after the polls closed on Tuesday night, Georgia Congressman John Barrow earned his place in history when he lost his reelection campaign to Republican Rick Allen by almost 10 points—a peculiar place he undoubtedly didn’t want. Barrow, a five-term Democratic incumbent with a conservative voting record that earned him endorsements from both the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce, was the last white Democrat in Congress from the Deep South.

This fact has occasioned some eloquent obituaries for that most endangered of political species, which is on the verge of extinction. Not only will there be no white Southern Democrats left in the House come January, but it’s a good bet there won’t be any white Southern Democrats in the Senate either (Mary Landrieu is likely to lose in the Louisiana run-off next month). Throw in the election of South Carolina’s Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate and, as The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson pointed out on Twitter, “there are now more black Republicans than white Democrats from the Deep South.”

Much as this is a problem for white southern Democrats, it's a crisis for black ones. That’s because blacks in the South—who, notwithstanding the very compelling counter-example of Tim Scott, are almost invariably Democrats—have for decades relied on coalitions with white Democrats to increase their political power. Lacking white politicians with whom they can build coalitions, black politicians are increasingly rendered powerless. (See my article in August about what this has meant for black people in Alabama.) The situation for southern black Democrats has only grown more dire after Tuesday’s midterms. To truly grasp the severity of the crisis, it’s instructive to look not at Congress and Barrow, but at state legislatures and a Democratic state senator from Alabama named Roger Bedford.

Bedford, a lawyer from the northern Alabama city of Russellville, was first elected to the state Senate in 1982. Over the next three decades, he became a fixture in Montgomery—surviving a broken neck; cancer; an infection suffered during a church mission trip that left him blind in one eye; an extortion indictment; and above all else, the state’s rising Republican tide. A conservative Democrat who was pro-gun and anti-abortion, Bedford for many years chaired one of the Senate’s budget committees—a perch he used to lavish obscene sums of government money on his district. The combination of his positions and his pork allowed him to escape the fate that befell so many of his fellow white Democrats in the state legislature as Republicans made gains and ultimately took control of it in 2010. Bedford, the Birmingham News’s Kyle Whitmire writes, had “the reputation of being bulletproof,” which made him “the Democrat that Republicans throughout the state loved to hate.”

On Tuesday, the Republicans finally got him. Bedford lost by 60 votes—out of more than 35,000 cast—to his GOP opponent. (The race is headed toward an automatic recount, but Bedford doesn’t sound like a guy who thinks he’s going to win.) As recently as four years ago, Bedford was one of 13 white Democrats in the Alabama Senate. After the Republican route in the 2010 elections, that number was slashed to four. Aggressive redistricting by the new Republican supermajority—which made white districts whiter and black districts blacker; and which led to a civil rights lawsuit that will be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court next week—caused two of those four white Democrats not to seek reelection this year. That meant that this past Tuesday, the only two white Democratic Senators on the ballot in Alabama were Bedford and Billy Beasley, the latter of whom represents a majority-black district. Assuming the results hold, Bedford’s defeat means the Alabama Senate has now lost its last white Democrat from a non-majority-minority district.

Or, to put it another way, all eight Democrats in the Alabama Senate now represent majority-black districts, while all 26 Republican Senators represent majority-white districts—and all 26 are themselves white. “The Republicans set out to create districts where no whites would be able to be elected except as Republicans, so it’s so important that you have at least one white Democrat,” Hank Sanders, an African-American Alabama State Senator, told me this week. Bedford’s apparent defeat, Sanders said, “has serious long term and profound racial implications for the state of Alabama.”

Alabama’s the most dramatic example, but this phenomenon of political segregation is a fact of life in the other state legislatures in the Deep South, where—with the exception of the Louisiana House—the Democratic minorities are all comprised of black majorities, while the Republican majorities are almost invariably all-white. The result has been a near complete segregation of the political system, with whites politicians representing white constituents and black politicians representing black ones.

This situation is so deleterious for African-Americans in the Deep South because, unlike in Congress, where black Democrats have many white Democratic colleagues—not to mention a Democrat in the White House—in these Southern states, black Democratic state legislators (and, by extension, their black constituents) are completely at the mercy of Republican legislative majorities and Republican governors. What’s more, unlike in Washington, where control of the White House—and at least the Senate —swings back and forth between both parties, the Republican control of Southern state houses seems here to stay for a long, long time.

Granted, the now solidly Republican South is beset by its own internal fissures. As The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin noted earlier this year,  “Southern Republican primaries have … become forums for what the party establishment sees as purity tests and what the right believes are opportunities to hold leaders accountable for their fealty, or lack thereof, to conservative principles.” That would seem to afford African-American politicians in the South the chance to form new political alliances, presumably with establishment Republicans who’d value African-American votes in their efforts to beat back more conservative, Tea Party challengers. “If you’re an African-American politician in the South,” the GOP strategist and Mississippi native Stuart Stevens told me, “the opportunities for you to be a power player on the Republican side are tremendous.”

But, so far at least, not many Southern Republicans seem interested in that sort of assistance. Even in Alabama, where the GOP internecine fighting is especially fierce, black Democrats can’t find any Republicans—Tea Party or establishment—to partner with. Indeed, it was Alabama’s establishment Republicans who executed a legislative agenda these past four years that systematically dismantled so many of the civil rights movement’s hard-won gains there. “I’m looking for any alliances and would be glad to work with anyone on anything,” Sanders says. “But Republicans, even these ‘establishment Republicans,’ don’t want to work with me. We’re on the outside and on the downside, and they have enough legislators that they really don’t need us.”

Southern white Democrats like John Barrow—who boasted about how his grandfather once exercised his Second Amendment rights to stop a lynching—and Roger Bedford did need help from black Southerners. That’s why it’s those black Southerners who’ll suffer the gravest impact of those white Democrats’ disappearances. There are any number of ramifications from the midterm elections. But, for all the focus on what they mean for Washington, the most profound ones may well be felt in the states, especially those in the deep South. There, African-Americans now have even less representation, and even fewer elected officials, fighting on their behalves.