Old Family Democrats Sing the Song of the South

Familiar names may be the key to Obama’s party retaking parts of the old Confederacy. Alex Brandon/AP

Democrats are about as welcome in the South these days as a skunk at a garden party.

With Republicans dominating Southern politics, it’s hard to imagine that Dixie was ever the inviting Democratic stronghold.

For a century after Abraham Lincoln’s GOP resisted the Confederate secession, Democrats used to run the South, from well before Reconstruction until President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He told his press secretary Bill Moyers, “We have lost the South for a generation.” And lose the South they did.

What is left of the former Democratic South in Congress is a handful of Senate seats, and they’re all up for re-election next year. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are in the fight of their lives. Republicans are painting the pair as liberal Democrats who cast votes for President Obama instead of representing the interests of their more conservative constituents.

Luckily for Landrieu, who is seeking her fourth term, and Pryor, who is seeking his third, they have one thing that helps inoculate them from these attacks: their fathers are still political titans in their home states.

“I think that family name is going to be the difference at the end,” said Robert McLarty, a Little Rock-based Democratic consultant, predicting that Pryor will eke out a victory next year.

As Southern congressional delegations have gradually turned Republican in the last two decades, Landrieu and Pryor’s perseverance hints at an unlikely winning strategy for Democrats in the inhospitable South: a combination of moderate politics and a respected family name.

As the two incumbents battle to keep their seats, two Georgia candidates this year are putting this model to the test. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., is seeking the state’s open Senate seat next year. Jason Carter, the grandson of President Jimmy Carter, is challenging incumbent Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Together, they bear two of the most respected names in Georgia politics.

“I think you are seeing a trend: folks who have deep Democratic ties in their states,” said Scott Arceneaux, a longtime Democratic operative from Louisiana. “They know how to win elections. They have been winning in their states for 40, 50 years.”

Coming from a prominent political family gives candidates clear advantages. The name recognition and fundraising possibilities that come with family ties are crucial components of a winning campaign in this traditional part of the country, where family is more important than ideology. But just as important, if less tangible, a famous name gives these candidates credibility in states hostile to the national party.

“Trust absolutely plays a role because these are families that people know,” said Arceneaux, who worked on Landrieu’s 2002 re-election campaign. “It’s hard to go into Arkansas and say the Pryors are these Washington Democrats, because they’re clearly not. They’ve been around Arkansas for decades.”

Like their children, former Sen. David Pryor and Nunn both thrived politically by forging local identities that distanced them from the national party.

As Democrats embraced the civil rights movement, the South pivoted toward the Republican Party – a transformation hastened by Republicans who swooped in to exploit the racial tensions in the region -- what President Richard Nixon called the “Southern Strategy.”

First the South began to vote for Republican presidents. Then, in the 1980s, the Reagan Revolution brought conservative Southern whites more firmly into the Republican fold. Over the next two decades, moderate whites slowly followed suit.

It wasn’t until this century that the Republicans completed their grip on the South. In the 1990s and 2000s, statewide offices, then legislatures, began to flip from blue to red. In the last election cycle, the final holdout, the Arkansas state legislature, fell into Republican hands, ensuring that the Party of Lincoln now controls every state legislature in the former Confederacy.

Despite this Southern shift toward the Republicans, Democrats in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s still thrived in the South, sitting atop their states’ political pyramid for decades as the landscape shifted beneath them. “Jimmy Carter was elected governor in 1970. Sam Nunn was elected to the Senate in 1972,” said Merle Black, an expert in Southern political history at Emory University. “So the Democratic Party in the 1970s was the dominant, majority party in Georgia.”

“Sam Nunn is still one of the most popular elected officials in the state,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic consultant in Georgia. “Jimmy Carter is still respected and beloved by a lot of rural voters in the state."

For decades, Southern Democrats like Nunn cultivated their reputations as moderates and on occasion bucked the national party, much as the younger Pryor and Landrieu sometimes do today. While Southern states went for presidential candidates like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush Senior and even George Wallace, voters maintained their loyalty to local Democrats.

Nunn, who retired from politics in 1996, won his first Senate race in 1972 as a conservative Democrat, distancing himself from the party’s presidential nominee, the ultra-liberal George McGovern, and instead boasted of his endorsement of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. Nunn held onto many moderate white voters, even as conservative whites abandoned the party, and enjoyed the support of black voters who believed a Democrat would serve them better than a Republican.

"I am a common-sense conservative from one of the most conservative, common-sense counties in our great state,” Nunn said during his first Senate bid, complaining that his Republican opponent was trying to “make me out as some sort of liberal, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

The question for his daughter, Michelle Nunn, is whether she can convince voters she is a Sam Nunn-style Democrat and not a Barack Obama-style Democrat. Pryor, Landrieu and Carter are fighting the same battle.

Like Nunn, David Pryor and Jimmy Carter were successful in the South as moderate Democrats, winning with the help of biracial voting coalitions. Pryor served two terms as governor of Arkansas and three as a U.S. Senator. In 1984, he won reelection to the Senate with 57 percent of the vote while at the top of the ticket Ronald Reagan handily won the state.

Landrieu comes from an arguably more prominent family and a more progressive history. As mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s, her father, Moon Landrieu, oversaw the integration of the city’s government before joining Carter’s administration as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Though the Landrieus enjoy their strongest support in Southern Louisiana, where Mitch Landrieu, the senator’s brother, is now serving as mayor of New Orleans, the name is respected throughout the state, and Sen. Landrieu regularly outperforms other Democrats in the northern part of the state. Mitch Landrieu has won statewide office twice as lieutenant governor.

“Moon, Mayor Landrieu, is rightfully a legend in Louisiana politics,” Arceneaux said. “He was a civil rights pioneer in the 1960s and 1970s. People haven’t forgotten that.”

Democrats hope that the family name will help these Southern Democrats win over moderates and older voters who fondly remember the elder Nunn, Carter, Landrieu and Pryor.

In Pryor’s case, McLarty believes the family name insulates the incumbent senator from Republican accusations that he is, as one video from the National Republican Senatorial Committee put it, “Obama’s left-hand man in Washington.”

“David Pryor established trust with some of the older voters who tend to vote for Romney but vote for a Pryor because they just trust and they know the Pryor name,” he said.

Voters are frequently reminded of the elder Pryor’s service because he continues to actively campaign for his son. A firm believer in retail politics, he drives down country roads, shakes hands with voters, and rubs shoulders with regular guys at auctions and yard sales.

Tharon Johnson, a veteran of Georgia politics, says it’s possible that the younger Nunn and Carter could benefit from a similar dynamic in the Peach State. "There are a lot of older voters, who are a big voting block anywhere, who will remember their support for President Carter and for Sen. Nunn,” he said. “I think it gives Michelle and Jason a great opportunity to be able to pull some of those who may be Republican voters now back to voting Democratic in the state."

Despite the benefits of a famous last name, none of these candidates have a clear path to victory. Republicans see an opportunity to peg Landrieu and Pryor as too liberal for their home states. Neither Pryor nor Landrieu have been up for re-election since voting for Obama’s health care reform law, which is unpopular in their home states. Forecasters currently judge the Louisiana and Arkansas races as toss ups.

The uphill battle for Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter is even steeper. Nunn benefits from running for an open seat as well as the spectacle of a Republican primary between several tea party-style candidates. Carter, because he is challenging an incumbent, has the hardest road to victory.

With a growing minority population in Georgia that is likely to make the state increasingly competitive for Democrats over the next decade, many see the Nunn and Carter candidacies today as down payments for a second run a few years down the road.

Historian Merle Black doesn’t think the Nunn name is enough to insulate Michelle Nunn from the liberal label. “The Democratic Party in the South is branded by the national party,” he said. “She’s either going to have to condemn the health care bill or she’s going to be part of the health care bill, which right now is really toxic in Georgia politics.”

“She’s going to be [painted] an Obama Democrat before this is all over,” he predicted.

Black also questioned how many voters will be swayed by the Nunn or Carter name. Sam Nunn hasn’t been on a Georgia ballot since 1990, he pointed out. Since then, many of the old man’s supporters have died, to be replaced by voters who don’t remember him at all.

It’s been even longer since Carter was on the ballot. “It’s one thing to respect the grandfather,” he said. “It’s another thing to say, ‘We’ll make the grandson governor.’”

As the trend of second-generation Southern Democrats continues, honorable mention goes to Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state taking on incumbent Republican and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell next year. Grimes’s father, Jerry Lundergan, has spent decades in Kentucky Democratic politics, including two stints as party chairman.

But Lundergan was always a partisan figure, well-known among state politicos but without the name recognition of a Landrieu, a Nunn or a Carter. The result is that Grimes benefits from her father’s deep networking roots but doesn’t necessarily carry the baggage of a partisan surname. What she has “is really the best of both worlds,” said Jonathan Miller, a Democrat and former Kentucky state treasurer.

For Southern Democrats, the trick is to convince voters they are significantly more conservative than the national party. It might just make the difference that their parents pulled off the same feat decades ago.

“Call it simple branding,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who helped get the last Southern Democrat, Bill Clinton, elected to the White House. “Party labels can be rather polarizing or divisive. They all have established, good brands. Why not use them?”