South will have more Dems, less clout, in Con­gress

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Front page - BY EMMA DUMAIN edu­main@mc­

The next Con­gress will fea­ture more South­ern Democrats, but there’s a catch: The re­gion’s clout on Capi­tol Hill will ac­tu­ally be di­min­ished.

With Democrats cap­tur­ing con­trol of the House in Tues­day’s midterm elec­tions, the Repub­li­cans who over­whelm­ingly rep­re­sent South­ern dis­tricts – and cur­rently hold sev­eral key com­mit­tee chair­man­ships – will shrink in size and in­flu­ence.

Democrats will have two chal­lenges: Boost­ing the party’s lag­ging im­age in the South, and help­ing the re­gion thrive as its law­mak­ers nav­i­gate the leg­isla­tive process.

In the cur­rent Con­gress, 104 House Repub­li­cans, and 40 House Democrats, are from the South, a re­gion stretch­ing from Vir­ginia to Texas. South­ern Repub­li­cans pre­side over 12 of the 21 House com­mit­tees, in­clud­ing some of the most pow­er­ful pan­els such as Ways and Means, which sets tax pol­icy, and Ju­di­ciary, which writes im­mi­gra­tion laws.

Some of those 12 Repub­li­cans would not be re­turn­ing to their po­si­tions next year even if the GOP had main­tained its ma­jor­ity. A few planned to re­tire, while oth­ers would step down be­cause of term lim­its. One law­maker lost re-elec­tion.

The num­ber of south­ern House Repub­li­cans ex­pected to be sworn in to the next Con­gress could be as low as 84, with the votes in some races still be­ing counted.

South­ern House Democrats will see their num­bers grow to at least 50 – thanks to the elec­tion of nine new mem­bers from Vir­ginia, Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Ge­or­gia – but only

four are poised to be com­mit­tee chairs: Rep. John Yar­muth, D-Ken­tucky, Bud­get; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Vir­ginia, Ed­u­ca­tion and the Work­force; Rep. Ben­nie Thomp­son, D-Mis­sis­sippi, Home­land Se­cu­rity; and Rep. Ed­die Ber­nice John­son, D-Texas, Science, Space and Tech­nol­ogy.

There is talk of Democrats re­viv­ing “ear­marks,” the prac­tice of al­low­ing law­mak­ers to di­rect spend­ing to spe­cific projects in their home states and dis­tricts.

Repub­li­cans banned the prac­tice in 2011 due to pub­lic out­cries and some fla­grant abuse. If ear­marks get re­stored, hav­ing se­nior south­ern Democrats at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble could be even more im­por­tant.

Brady Quirk-Gar­van, chair­man of the Charles­ton County Demo­cratic Party in South Carolina, said cer­tain parochial needs de­pend on hav­ing a Demo­crat in Wash­ing­ton.

“Al­ready, one of the things I’ve heard from mod­er­ates and Democrats is how great it is that we have a con­gress­man again who be­lieves that fund­ing projects in Charles­ton mat­ters,” Quirk-Gar­van said, ar­gu­ing that Democrats are will­ing to spend money on their con­stituents while Repub­li­cans are largely bound to the ide­ol­ogy of fis­cal re­straint.

Vot­ers in Quirk-Gar­van’s 1st Con­gres­sional District elected Demo­crat Joe Cun­ning­ham last week, flip­ping a seat that’s been in Repub­li­can hands for nearly three decades.

Yar­muth, a white Demo­crat, told McClatchy he was at a loss for how Democrats can boost their south­ern clout, though he said Democrats in gen­eral needed to speak to vot­ers with more “em­pa­thy.”

“We def­i­nitely have a prob­lem,” he said.

“South­ern Demo­crat” of­ten still evokes the im­age of a white con­ser­va­tive, but the re­gion’s Democrats are a di­verse group. That makes it hard to pro­mote agen­das that can be sold eas­ily.

“What might work in Florida and Texas might not work in South Carolina or Ten­nessee,” said Gibbs Knotts, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of Charles­ton and the co-author of a forth­com­ing book about the trans­for­ma­tion of south­ern po­lit­i­cal iden­tity.

In­deed, the midterms pre­sented plenty of mixed mes­sages.

Democrats An­drew Gil­lum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas ran on de­cid­edly pro­gres­sive plat­forms for gov­er­nor and se­na­tor, re­spec­tively, in over­whelm­ingly red states. O’Rourke came his­tor­i­cally close to win­ning, and Gil­lum’s race is head­ing to a re­count. Stacey Abrams, like Gil­lum a black pro­gres­sive Demo­crat in the red state of Ge­or­gia, is also in a gov­er­nor’s race that’s too close to call.

In South Carolina and Ten­nessee, Democrats James Smith and Phil Bre­desen pre­sented them­selves as mod­er­ates and lost their re­spec­tive races for gov­er­nor and se­na­tor by wide mar­gins. But South Carolina elected Cun­ning­ham, who made lo­cal coastal con­ser­va­tion the cen­ter­piece of his cam­paign.

Many Democrats also con­sider African-Amer­i­cans as an in­tensely loyal vot­ing bloc, rather than as an im­por­tant group within the larger South­ern base.

“African-Amer­i­cans think of them­selves as south­ern at as high as a rate as white folks,” Knotts said he has found in his stud­ies.

There are more black south­ern Democrats than there are white south­ern Democrats, who live in more con­ser­va­tive dis­tricts where vot­ers tend to elect Repub­li­cans.

House Democrats have only had one south­erner in lead­er­ship since 2003: Rep. Jim Cly­burn of South Carolina.

Cly­burn is the as­sis­tant Demo­cratic leader and is run­ning to re­tain his No. 3 rank as the ma­jor­ity whip in the new Con­gress – the job he held dur­ing the last House Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity from 2007 to 2011.

Also the only AfricanAmer­i­can in House Demo­cratic lead­er­ship, Cly­burn as whip could help a wide cross-sec­tion of mem­bers fig­ure out how they can vote on leg­is­la­tion that sup­ports the party but doesn’t alien­ate con­stituents back home.


Gibbs Knotts, po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of Charles­ton, on the di­ver­sity of South­ern Democrats

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