Politics

Where Else Could Democrats Win in the South?

Warnock speaks into a microphone. He stands in front of a banner featuring his name.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, who was elected to the Senate this week, speaking to supporters on Tuesday in Marietta, Georgia. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

With the control of the Senate on the line, Democrats in Georgia, and Black voters in particular, turned out in record numbers on Tuesday and sent Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock—only the second Black senator to be popularly elected in the South—to Congress. But the Black voters didn’t carry the vote alone: Roughly 30 percent of white voters cast their ballots against the Republicans, far better than Democrats have performed with white voters in neighboring states. And growing Asian and Latino populations in Georgia also helped deliver a historic victory.

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To find out if this outcome was a harbinger of more significant changes to come in the Deep South, Slate spoke with Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies elections, voting behavior, and African American politics. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Molly Olmstead: People are crediting the remarkable turnout of Black voters for this outcome. Both Louisiana and Mississippi have proportionately larger Black populations. Could this happen in those states?

Vincent Hutchings: Well, remember, these were squeakers. So obviously, the near-unanimous support of African American voters was critical. But it would be incomplete and incorrect to say that that was the only thing driving it. You can’t get 30 percent of whites in Mississippi to vote for a Democratic candidate [like white voters in Georgia did]. You might not even be able to get 20 percent of whites in Mississippi. And let’s not discount the growing Latino population in Georgia, which you don’t have in Mississippi or South Carolina. You would need all those things to come together in an almost perfect storm.

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What makes white voters in Georgia different from white voters in neighboring states?

Given the growth of industry in that state and a variety of other dimensions attracting residents from other parts of the country, I would imagine that the education levels of whites in Georgia are higher than they are for, say, whites in Alabama or Mississippi. And as we’ve all learned over the last several years, highly educated whites, which had previously been a Republican constituency, have shifted toward the Democratic camp.

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Do you think that Democratic organizers in any of the Southern states have any obvious lessons to be learned here?

The one lesson that jumps off the page for me is it isn’t simply a victory by Democrats: These are two left-of-center Democrats. They’re not AOC or Ayanna Pressley—they’re not that far on the left. But they are dramatically different than the kinds of Democrats that Southern states have sent to Congress in years past. So if there’s one lesson, it’s that national Democrats, not Southern Democrats, can be competitive in that state of Georgia. We saw that, obviously, with Joe Biden’s victory. Some thought it might have been a fluke. But it’s hard to say it’s a fluke: Now it’s happened three times.

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Do you feel like this is going to mark a shift in general messaging among Democratic candidates in the South?

I think so. I mean, Stacey Abrams ran on this notion. Previously the playbook had been “let’s try to find a way to appeal to rural whites,” which is really code for adopting a right-of-center political message. And when you think about the most recent statewide successful Democratic candidates in Georgia in the last 20 years or so, people like Zell Miller—he was a conservative Democrat. So when Stacey Abrams ran as an unapologetic left-of-center Democrat and almost won the governor’s office, and Joe Biden, who in some respects is the most liberal Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson, won the state, that’s another example of that. These are unapologetic liberals. It’s really a striking outcome.

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Warnock and Ossoff were attacked as “radicals” and “socialists” by the opposition. Are you saying that that messaging is less effective now?

Yes. The reason that the Zell Millers of the world could be successful in Georgia previously was because you couldn’t credibly say Zell Miller was a radical or a Marxist. The reason they trotted out those attack lines against these two Democratic candidates is because that’s the playbook that has worked for them in the past. But it didn’t work in this case, and that’s an indication of a lot of things. Some demographic changes, of course. [Also] the tireless efforts on the ground by Stacey Abrams and a lot of people whose names we will never know.

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What would you tell a Democratic organizer in the South about where they should focus their energy next?

I think they’ve already solidified a position in Virginia. They’ve demonstrated their influence in Georgia. I imagine that North Carolina is a place that’s closer to be flipped. Obviously, Obama won it. The Black population in North Carolina isn’t as large as it is in Georgia, but it’s still bigger than it is in Texas. And there is a growing Latino population in North Carolina. You’ve got high education in the [Research] Triangle. So with a sufficient effort, I think it’s possible that they could make a push in a state like North Carolina. It seems to me that that’s far more likely to be the “next Georgia,” certainly more than South Carolina or Mississippi.

Could you see another state in the Deep South eventually joining Georgia on this trend?

I don’t see this anytime soon in Alabama, Mississippi, or South Carolina. So of what’s left, I guess I would say Louisiana, maybe, maybe, in a decade or two.

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