The night Donald Trump got elected he carried every Southern state but Virginia. Since then, pundits have posited that the South is part of a land unto its own known as “Trump Country”––even though Trump arguably couldn’t have made it to the White House without his supporters in Greenwich, Connecticut among other elite coastal communities.
This idea belies the South’s complexity and flux. For every voter suppression law that's passed another Confederate monument comes down and another woman of color goes to Congress. This state of change is especially apparent now, as protests against white supremacist state violence rock Southern cities, suburbs, and rural towns. This is why every election now is a choice between a dying south and one struggling to be born. And this is an election year.
See also: The purple tide in Alabama politics
A multiracial democracy in the South is within sight. And that's why there's been a backlash. Last December, the State of Georgia removed 309,000 voters from their election rolls. That's four percent of the entire electorate. This is the same state that purged over a million "inactive" voters from 2012 to 2018. Many of them re-registered that year to vote for Stacey Abrams, who lost the governor's race by 21,000 votes.
For every voter suppression law that's passed another Confederate monument comes down and another woman of color goes to Congress.
"There's something going on because you're seeing this attack on voting rights," said Dasheika Ruffin, Southern Regional Director for the ACLU. “If they weren’t scared, why mess with the Civil Rights Act?”
Purging voter rolls. Voter ID laws. Closing precincts in the Black Belt. These are attempts to hold back the inevitable: shifting demographics and political trends that will soon place the region at the forefront of progressive change. That's why conservatives and corporate interests are acting while there's still time.
Right now, there are competing polities in the South. One is progressive and diverse and governs most of the major cities like Charlotte, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston. Another coalition is white, Christian and conservative and governs statewide. They control every legislative chamber in the South. Except Virginia, which flipped in 2019. And most of the governor's mansions. Think of Brian Kemp in Georgia. And Greg Abbott in Texas. Those electorates are moving in different directions.
Southern cities are leading the way on climate change, worker rights, decarceration, and other progressive reforms. But the states have followed a path of drastic cuts to education and social services. Of the 14 states refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, eight are in the South. But then there's Virginia, which recently passed gun safety measures. And the Equal Rights Amendment. And that's where much of the South is headed.
"North Carolina seems to be a few election cycles behind Virginia in that transition," said Dr. Michael Bitzer, a bow-tie wearing politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. "And Georgia seems to be a few election cycles behind North Carolina.”
The New Battleground
In five months, America will vote. And the next president will likely be determined by three Midwestern states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But in the future the battleground will be down South.
In some ways it already is a new and different path to the White House. According to a report by the Center for American Progress: Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida are growing faster than the national average. They also have large and growing populations of people of color. That's part of the reason why these states will soon be more likely to lean Democratic.
"North Carolina is very accessible for the Democrats this time," said Ruy Teixeira, a Senior Fellow at CAP who co-authored the report. "The fact that the Black population is actually growing is important. The other part of it is the continued liberalization of the white population around Charlotte and the Research Triangle.”
"I joke around and I say all roads to the White House are going to come through Georgia," said Ruffin, who served as a Senior Advisor to the Elizabeth Warren campaign.
And that's not as far off as you might think. According to recent polling: Donald Trump and Joe Biden are within the margin of error in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida is trending towards Biden.
"If the election were held today Joe Biden would win," said Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans. Democrats don't need any of those states to win back the White House. But if they do it's going to be a landslide. And what matters more is what's happening down the ballot – because those outcomes could change the region for good.
The most expensive senate race in the country is in North Carolina, where a Republican Super PAC has already booked $21.8 million worth of airtime for the fall. The latest polling there shows Democrat and Iraq War veteran Cal Cunningham in a tight race with the Republican incumbent Thom Tillis. That outcome will likely determine which party controls the senate in the next Congress.
“The South is ground zero for any social justice work. What happens if we actually invest, educate and provide resources in these states?”
There are also four senate seats up for grabs in Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina. Those are still considered "Likely" or "Lean" Republican. But Democrat Jaime Harrison is outraising Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. And by running on bold progressive agendas, the Democratic challengers are breaking ground. This isn't the South of Jesse Helms on one side and Zell Miller on the other. Soon these states will catch up to Virginia and not only turn from red to purple to blue––they’ll represent a more inclusive and forward-thinking politics than the Solid South of the Dixiecrat era.
"We're probably half a generation away," said Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator and current CNN contributor, about the prospects of a progressive South Carolina, in the cradle of the Old Confederacy. “Which is better than it was when I was born.”
The region is on the frontlines of every major issue from climate change to police brutality to guns. The South is where these issues will be decided.
“The South is ground zero for any social justice work,” said Ruffin, who encourages progressives to compete in Southern states. “What happens if we actually invest, educate and provide resources in these states?”
The Lesson of Alabama
If there's a roadmap for moving the South forward after years of one-party rule, it's the election of Doug Jones in Alabama. In 2018, African-American women enabled Jones’ victory, giving him 98 percent of their vote.
"Everything in the South is very relational. If you have a cousin down the street talking about a particular issue that’s more effective.”
"One of the things that race kind of taught us was that you can’t ignore Black women and the power of the Black vote anymore," said Ruffin, who worked on the campaign.
Unfortunately, it’s a lesson some Democrats still haven’t taken to heart. That much was apparent when Joe Biden caused an uproar by cavalierly stating that Black people who don’t vote for him “ain’t black.”
The other lesson is to "hire people who are from those communities to organize those communities," Ruffin said. "Everything in the South is very relational. If you have a cousin down the street talking about a particular issue that’s more effective.”
See also: How Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama
Grassroots organizing is pivotal to turning out voters of color. "The test of whether or not we can flip these districts is the test of whether or not we can knock on doors," said Sellers. "You need to touch these voters. You have to visit their church."
That's going to be difficult in the midst of a global pandemic. And Sellers noted that where he's from in Denmark, South Carolina, many people don't have WiFi. Groups like Black Voters Matter and Swing Left are finding creative, safe ways to engage with voters across the map via online platforms and that will make a difference. But many of these elections will be close no matter what.
What to watch for in November
If cities are blue and most of the rural South, except for the Black Belt, is deep red, the battleground is in-between. That's what will determine key statewide elections. And many state legislative chambers.
"I'm going to be watching the suburbs in urban counties," said Dr. Bitzer, the political analyst in North Carolina. "Those areas outside of Charlotte and Raleigh: Mint Hill, Matthews, Huntersville, Apex." Areas like that are trending blue.
They helped Democrats take back Congress in 2018. And if Biden is winning down South––or Cunningham, Harrison, or Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia––it's because they run up the score in the ex-Republican suburbs of the state.
So, pay especially close attention to the suburbs of Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Charleston, Charlotte and Columbia, South Carolina,. That’s according to J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at UVA's Center for Politics.
Coleman says the area just north of Charlotte represents the future. "That's where Thom Tillis is from, and it turned Democratic in 2018."
If Democrats win these key battlegrounds, Mitch McConnell is out of a job. Donald Trump is an ex-president. And the dream of a multiracial democracy, with equity for all, is closer to a reality in the American South.
"I have no doubt that we're going to get there," said Landrieu. “And I don’t think anybody should expect to get there without a fight."