JONESBORO, Ark. — The Southern white Democrat, long on the endangered list, is at risk of being pushed one step closer to extinction.
From Virginia to Florida and South Carolina to Texas, nearly two dozen Democratic seats are susceptible to a potential Republican surge in congressional races on Election Day, leaving the party facing a situation where its only safe presence in the South is in urban and predominantly black districts.
The swing has been under way since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson predicted that his fellow Democrats would face a backlash of white voters that would cost the party the South. It continued with Ronald Reagan’s election and reached a tipping point in the Republican sweep of 1994, with more than one-third of the victories coming from previously Democratic seats in the South.
This year, retirements of Democrats have left the party scrambling to retain four open seats in Arkansas and Tennessee that have been in their control for most of the past century. Those districts, along with others held by incumbents in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, are central to the Republican strategy to win the House.
For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans also are well-positioned to control more state legislative chambers and seats than Democrats in the South, which would have far-reaching effects for redistricting.
“It’s not a good prospect for the Democratic Party in the South,” said Glen Browder, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama. “It should be a moment of reflection for Democrats. When you forfeit the South, your sights tend to drift too far left.”
The vulnerable Democrats across the South have moved to distance themselves from the party’s agenda and President Barack Obama. Several candidates have declared they would not support keeping Nancy Pelosi of California as House speaker if the party holds its majority.
Should a large number of Democratic candidates lose, it would mark a significant step in one of the most fundamental, if slow-moving, political realignments in U.S. politics.
There are 59 Democrats in House seats across the South from the 11 states of the old Confederacy, totaling 43 white representatives and 16 black ones. Of those seats in predominantly white districts, nine are leaning Republican, eight are tossups and at least five more are competitive, according to the latest rankings by The New York Times, creating the prospect of the biggest Democratic losses since 1994, when 19 seats fell.
Here in Jonesboro, the 1st Congressional District has not sent a Republican to Washington since 1873. But the retirement of Rep. Marion Berry has created the best opening that Republicans can recall, with Obama and his party viewed with suspicion. Democrats see the district as a firewall if they are to retain a foothold in the South.