The New Southern Strategy

Just one year ago -- hell, 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 office-holders could hold on to their jobs. Could Senator Bill Nelson hold off Katherine Harris, America's tackiest theocrat, in Florida? Could Gov. Phil Bredesen show his conservative cojones by cutting enough folks off state health care 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 the 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. It was just a more polite version of one of the most popular post-election blogs from the bitterness of late 2004: "Fuck the South."

Tonight, the South -- aka "Jesusland" -- has a message for those national Democratic wizards: No, fuck you. If the Senate lands in Democratic hands, it'll be thanks to Claire McCaskill's triumph in Missouri and Jim Webb's stunning win in Virginia over the man who was once conservative Republicans' 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 hard-nosed former prosecutor, and Webb, a tough-as-beef-jerky former Republican cabinet officer, are nobody's idea of wild-eyed liberals. But they both ran campaigns that stubbornly bucked conventional wisdom for Southern Democrats running statewide in the last two decades. Running against hardcore Christian conservative incumbents, neither of them triangulated. They were unwaveringly pro-choice; they called for sharp changes in Iraq policy; McCaskill opposed anti-gay marriage hoo-ha; and they ran as old-fashioned, blue-collar, labor-embracing economic populists. As what used to be called Democrats, that is.

"It's back to the traditional Democratic Party, which was founded on the health of the working person," Webb told me earlier this fall. In her victory speech this morning, McCaskill highlighted the same theme: "Once again," she said, "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.

Truly championing the working class -- and winning these folks' votes -- means plunging in among them. That is what national Democrats are afraid to do. It's what John Kerry had in mind early in 2004, when he sniffed about how "everybody always makes the mistake of looking South" for Democratic votes. Despite forty years of steady economic growth in the region, the South still has more poor, struggling and badly educated Americans -- black and white -- than anywhere else in the country.

Those were the people who won Missouri and Virginia for the Democrats this year. Not because they finally woke up and realized where their true economic interests lay. McCaskill and Webb won because they took their campaigns directly into the Republicans' working-class strongholds. In the Bible Belt Ozarks of Southern Missouri, McCaskill campaigned hard, emphasizing her blue-collar message without running away from her pro-stem cell, pro-choice, anti-war message. It paid off in the biggest Republican county in the state, Greene, where early polls showed Republican Jim Talent winning a mere 53 percent of the vote -- a huge change from recent elections.

Webb stumped hard in Southwest Virginia, conservative hill country that has provided Republicans with their statewide margins in Virginia for three decades now. He did not thicken his accent to charm the folks down there; he did not excise the Marx and Engels references from his high-falutin speeches when he campaigned in the deepest, most conservative hollows. Like McCaskill, he spoke to folks in the same tone, with the same messages, that he used in liberal urban strongholds. It won't be so easy for Dixiephobic Democrats to make a "forget the South" argument now. As a recent Pew study found, the South's famously militaristic folks have turned against the Iraq war just as fiercely as the rest of the country. In Virginia, folks were not distracted by an anti-gay marriage amendment. In Missouri, folks were not distracted by this year's hot initiative issue, a stem-cell amendment. For years, they've been voting for Republicans with whom they disagreed on a host of issues; this time, they voted for Democrats with social and foreign-policy views that were often downright liberal.

The war mattered, but the working-class message made the difference for both McCaskill and Webb. It wasn't just their policy positions, which mimicked those of national Democrats in most ways. It was the way they showed 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 trip downstate to shake hands at a polling place in Greene County. Like Webb, she looked rural and Christian Right folks in the eye, asked for their votes, and told them where she stood without trimming the edges off her progressive views. And like Webb, she got more votes from those folks than any chart, graph, poll or wishful thought could have conjured up.

No message from this triumphal mid-term election should ring more loudly than this. The South cannot be written off by the Democratic Party. More precisely, Southerners cannot be written off by the Democratic Party. The key to winning the votes of rural and working-class people in Dixie is the same as everywhere else in America. Nobody said it better than that great old Southern liberal activist, Strange Fruit author Lillian Smith. "A vote," she wrote in Killers of the Dream, " a small thing to give a man who has made you feel revered for the first time in your life."

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