As Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu unsuccessfully campaigned for Democrats’ last Senate seat in the Deep South, a group of prominent liberals were shopping a proposal for a new political group with claims that the party’s eventual dominance in the region is inevitable.
The group, called the Southern Elections Fund, asked high-dollar Democratic donors at a meeting of the secretive Democracy Alliance last month to contribute $4 million to the effort, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Their pitch couches Democratic dominance in the south as a foregone conclusion. "The South will become more progressive in the future: that is a demographic inevitability," the group wrote. "However, the right wing’s campaign to make the future come slower merits an equally persistent response from the left."
SEF will conduct voter registration drives for people of color, a key demographic in what the left describes as the Rising American Electorate. Combined with demographic changes, the group says, voter registration will guarantee Democratic victories in the "Black Belt."
Spearheading SEF are former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and Julian Bond, the group’s chairman emeritus, who founded an organization of the same name in 1969 to fight for black voting rights in southern states.
The $4 million request to Democracy Alliance donors would represent a fifth of the $20 million SEF hopes to raise by the end of next year.
Those funds will go primarily toward registering voters of color. Significant increases in such voters, and a turnout effort that gets them to the polls, could sway key statewide elections, SEF said in its pitch to DA donors.
"The prevailing political wisdom is that progressive policies cannot ‘win the day’ in the South," the group wrote. "The Southern Elections Fund has examined the numbers, and we know otherwise."
Its data purports to show that a registration and turnout apparatus would tilt the scales in progressives’ favor (in an effort to appear nonpartisan, SEF consistently refers to "progressives," not "Democrats").
The group claims that a conservative conspiracy to deny minorities the right to vote through voter ID and other laws is explicitly aimed at stymying progressives by disenfranchising a key voting bloc.
"Demographic trends in the South provide us with a real opportunity to shift the critical mass of the Southern electorate in a way that will result in the election of more progressive officeholders at all levels of government," SEF wrote.
The pitch to DA donors came just weeks after Republicans captured U.S. Senate seats in Arkansas, North Carolina, and West Virginia, and retained control of seats in Kentucky, Kansas, and Georgia. Weeks later, the GOP picked up a seat in Louisiana.
That has led to predictions of total Democratic demise in the Deep South, and trends suggest that SEF’s reliance on demography may not be enough to reverse the trend. The group all but ignores how Democrats’ stances on key issues might affect its prospects.
Key parts of today’s Democratic Party platform are simply unpalatable for many southern voters, according to Nate Cohn, a New York Times writer specializing in polling and demographics.
"It seems hard to argue that the Democrats could have retained much support among rural, evangelical Southern voters as the party embraced liberalism on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion," Cohn wrote last week.
While SEF is promoting a demographic approach to southern politics, key interest groups on the left appear content with the losses of Democrats who, while critical to the party’s Senate majority, strayed from the base’s positions on issues that tend to weigh down southern candidates perceived as too liberal.
"Senator Landrieu never set foot on the soil she was willing to risk and never looked farmers in the eye explaining why she favored foreign oil over their property rights," Jane Kleeb, founder of liberal group Bold Nebraska, told Politico of Landrieu’s support for the Keystone pipeline. "So no, we will not miss her."
Landrieu was nearly a target of environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer’s deep-pocketed Super PAC over her Keystone support.
According to Rep. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), who unseated Landrieu in a runoff election on Saturday, the increasingly radical energy policy views of the Democratic Party make it unpopular with many voters in the state.
"There’s one party for the working family. There’s another party which is not," Cassidy said when asked about Democrats’ poor performance in the south.
"If you are in a coal mine, would you be voting Democrat? Of course not. If you are working at a wellhead, would be you be voting for this president and his policies? Of course not."
Rather than adjusting policy positions to better fit with the views of most southerners, some liberals are suggesting abandoning Dixie altogether.
"With Landrieu’s departure, the Democrats will have no more senators from the Deep South, and I say good. Forget about it," wrote Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky on Monday. "Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway."
"We believe that this work will have national implications," it told DA donors. "If we want to undo some of the damage [caused by Republican elected officials in southern states] and build the ability to pass progressive legislation, we will need to build progressive power in Southern states" before the 2020 redistricting process.
Increased Democratic power in the south will also "put more states in play for future presidential elections," SEF wrote.
However, SEF’s focus on voters of color risks ignoring the other half of the demographic equation: Democrats’ increasingly poor performance among white voters.
"When the Democratic Party and its candidates become more liberal on culture and religion, that’s not a party that’s advocating what these whites value or think," Emory University political science professor Merle Black told Cohn.
"In some states, the Republican advantage among white voters is nearly nine to one in presidential elections, a level of loyalty that rivals that of African-Americans for Democrats," Cohn noted. "What has changed is that Southern white voters are now nearly as hostile to born-and-bred Southern Democrats, like Ms. Landrieu, as they were to John Kerry or Barack Obama."
SEF did not respond to questions about its approach or how midterm results may affect it.