Why are we here? Why did the Obama reelection team pick North Carolina for the Democratic convention? As the convention begins, prominent Democrats are still grumbling about that question.
They fear the Tar Heel State is no sure win for the president. Recall that in 2008, Barack Obama won North Carolina by 0.4 percentage points over Arizona Sen. John McCain (R). Before that, the state had gone Republican in every presidential election since 1976. Current polls have Obama and Romney tied in the state. When then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he famously told an aide that the Democrats would “lose the South for a generation.”
But in 2008, two Southern states, North Carolina and Virginia, swung to the Democrats and helped to elect the first African-American president of the United States.
The Democrats want a repeat of that Southern magic this fall. They have reason for optimism in the steady rise of Southern minorities, immigrants, high-tech workers and educated women. That explains why, a year ago, Charlotte seemed like a smart pick.
And even if the Tar Heel State is a loser for Obama, there are Democrats who see value in sending a clear message to the GOP that they have not given up the South. That’s why Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — both former Democratic Southern governors who became president — will address the convention in prime time.
But battling the conservative, Republican, white-male dominance of the South will be tough. Mitt Romney was too moderate for much of the region in the GOP primary, losing South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Even one of the South’s most prominent black politicians — former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis — recently switched to the Republican Party. He does not see a political future for himself as a Democrat in the South.
In fact, of the 22 U.S. senators representing the former states of the Confederacy, only five are Democrats. White Southern Democrats in the House are also in the minority. They have been defeated by Republican gerrymandering that concentrates minority voters into isolated districts and frees GOP candidates to pursue hard-right agendas with a secure base of conservative, mostly white votes.
In the House, Southern Democrats are swamped by the GOP. There are now only 13 white, 18 black and four Hispanic Democrats (35 out of 135 seats) from the South now in Congress. They are outnumbered by 98 white and two black Republicans.
Many of the state Democratic parties in the South are weak. This year the winner of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Tennessee was an anti-gay-rights activist who had to be disavowed by the Tennessee Democratic Party. In 2010 the U.S. Senate candidate from South Carolina was Alvin Greene, an unemployed man facing felony obscenity charges.
Currently, Republicans control one or both state legislative chambers in every one of those states, with the exception of Arkansas. All of the Southern states have right-to-work laws effectively neutering the labor unions, the political lifeblood of the Democratic Party.
After the Civil Rights Act, President Nixon attracted disaffected white Democrats to the GOP by using the so-called “Southern Strategy.” He appealed to white racial fears with a law-and-order approach. Reagan further tightened the GOP’s grip on the South in 1980 and 1984 by railing against the dangers of “welfare queens” and kicking off his reelection campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were murdered in the 1960s.
The Republican capture of the South gave rise to many towering figures who helped shape American politics for a generation — Sens. Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and Phil Gramm. They influenced national politics in Washington because their strong political base kept reelecting them, thereby giving them seniority in Congress and stature in the party.
But times change, and these giants of Southern politics have departed the stage in recent years.
Now the story in the South is about the surge in minority populations.
More than half of the nation’s population growth during the past decade, 51.4 percent, occurred in Southern states. It was driven in large part by an in-migration of an estimated 2.3 million people. Most of them are from demographic groups that tend to favor Democrats: blacks, Asians, Hispanics, college-educated people, the elderly and immigrants.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of eligible Hispanic voters in North Carolina more than doubled — going from 84,000 to 182,000.
Add an influx of young voters to the Southern electorate and the soil is fertile for Democrats.
Forty percent of North Carolinians belong to Generation X — born between 1982 and 1995 — or Generation Y — born after 1995. There are also roughly 30 college campuses in North Carolina that helped put Obama over the top in 2008. President Obama remains in the hunt in North Carolina. There is still reason to hope for another win here and in Virginia.
And that is why any discontent with the decision to hold the convention in North Carolina is low-level grumbling.