How the Republican Hold on the South Could Collapse ∇ Newsweek

How the Republican Hold on the South Could Collapse

By Pema Levy / July 8, 2014 11:41 AM EDT   

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As minorities head to the South, the Republican grip on politics is under threat. Pictured, Obama supporters celebrate his election in 2008. Mario Tama/Getty
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Filed Under: U.S., The South, Democrats, Republicans

Henry L. Marsh III wanted to see President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in person because, at 79, he figured he might not live to see another black president elected. So the Virginia civil rights lawyer spent January 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C., witnessing a part of history he had dedicated his life to making possible.

His presence at Obama’s inauguration, however, set off one of the dirtiest political maneuvers in recent history.

Marsh is a Democrat in the Virginia Senate, a chamber that until last month was divided evenly along party lines, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. But with Marsh 100 miles away in Washington, Republicans briefly enjoyed a 20-19 majority, if only for a few hours. In a power grab so brazen it caught even the GOP governor by surprise, Senate Republicans passed a bill redrawing the state Senate map to give them a permanent majority.

By the time Marsh returned, his colleagues had passed a redistricting bill that would have vastly undercut the political power of black Virginians. The new map crowded black voters into minority-heavy districts so that up to eight more districts would turn red, a strategy political scientists call “pack and crack,” leaving Republicans with a 27-13 majority in Virginia for years to come. As if to pour salt on the wound, this all happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The plan never made it out of the Republican-controlled legislature. Two and a half weeks after the Senate passed the new map, the Republican speaker in Virginia’s lower chamber, after much reflection and prayer, angered his own party by killing the map with a procedural move.

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“Count that as a new low for hyper-partisanship, dirty tricks and the unaccountable arrogance of power,” declared The Washington Post, echoing the widespread shock at the sly incident that made a mockery of democracy.

That attempt may seem extraordinary up close, but take a step back to look at the changing demographics of Virginia and the South more broadly and this power play starts to make sense. Two months before, Obama had won the state for a second time. For the first time since 1964, Virginia was on its way from red to blue.

Virginia’s Republicans were seeing decades of political control melting away before their eyes. “They tried to seize power that they didn’t deserve,” Marsh said. “They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

To understand why the Republican Party has come to dominate the South—and why that strength may now be waning—you have to go back to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and Northern abolitionists ran the Republican Party in the 1860s, while the Democrats drew much of their strength from the slave states. After Reconstruction, when the Southern states were left to their own devices, the Democratic Party ruled with an iron fist—and Jim Crow. Their reign lasted nearly a century.

The GOP in Dixie, political scientist V.O. Key Jr. observed in 1949, more closely resembled a cult or a conspiracy than a political party. In 1950, of the 127 members of Congress from the former Confederate states, just two were Republican.

But the Democrats’ stranglehold on the South was already loosening. Perhaps no one embodied, or facilitated, the South’s transformation from the Democrats’ Solid South to the regional anchor of today’s Republican Party as much as Strom Thurmond.

7_11_FE0203_DixieBlue_02After Democratic President Harry Truman embraced civil rights ahead of his re-election bid in 1948, Southern Democrats broke from the party in protest. They wanted to send a message to Democrats in Washington: Either civil rights go, or the South goes.

A group of Southern lawmakers formed the “Dixiecrats,” who were devoted to states’ rights, and nominated Thurmond, the former Democratic segregationist governor of South Carolina, for president. On a hot day in Birmingham, Alabama, Thurmond made his first speech to Southern deserters as their presumptive nominee.

“There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches,” Thurmond told them. That November, he won over a million votes and carried four states in the Deep South.

Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats weren’t kidding around. Two months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, Thurmond, by then a U.S. senator, switched parties from Democrat to Republican. That November, five Southern states followed his lead and voted for Barry Goldwater, the Republicans’ ultra-conservative presidential nominee. In 1964, more Southern whites voted Republican than Democrat for the first time. They never went back.

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theGrio’s 100: OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, Nina Turner

theGrio’s 100: Nina Turner, taking on voter suppression in Ohio

Senator Nina Turner (OhioSenate.gov)Senator Nina Turner (OhioSenate.gov)

Who is Nina Turner? 

The Ohio state senator emerged as one of the loudest voices in the country against controversial voting laws advanced by Republicans in her state, which was one of the most important battlegrounds in the 2012 campaign. Turner, 45, represents the Cleveland area, where she  grew up and and later served as a city councilman.

Why is she on theGrio’s 100? 

Ohio was one of the biggest flash points in the various controversies over voting laws and restrictions during the campaign. And Turner was a constant voice, insisting on making sure that it was as easy as possible for people both in Cleveland and throughout the state to vote. She made numerous appearances on MSNBC and other cable news outlets, as well as making her concerns known locally.

“Public officials at all levels have a moral obligation to make it easier to vote, but some of Ohio’s leaders have ignored this responsibility,” she said last year in the midst of the voting controversies.

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Her actions had impact. In the end, public attention and legal decisions forced Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, to abandon many controversial ideas that could have depressed the Obama vote in the Buckeye State, which the president won.

What’s next for Turner? 

Turner could eventually consider a run for the U.S. House or Senate or as Cleveland mayor. But more immediately, she is likely to continue playing a role in elections in 2014 and 2016 in battling Republicans on voting laws.

In 2014, Democrats want to win back the statehouse in Ohio, and Turner could help rally the party’s base to ensure reelection. And in 2016, Ohio is very likely to remain in the spotlight as a battleground state.

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