Opinion

Opinion: Democrats May Be Too Optimistic About 2018 Gains

Ghosts of racial discord still haunt the South

Congressional districts in North Carolina were too racially driven even for a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Republican-drawn congressional districts in North Carolina turned out to be too racially driven for a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives — with Justice Clarence Thomas siding with the majority.

Who’d have thought it?

But the fact that it’s arguably a toss-up, in some judges’ reasoning, how much the Republicans in the state legislature used race or pure partisan advantage while doing their dirty work highlights how difficult it will be for Democrats to retake the majority in the House — Trumpian scandals and a proposed budget that hurts many in the GOP base notwithstanding.

In the South, a strong Republican bulwark, it’s simple but also pretty accurate to say that — after the 1960s civil rights legislation and a Richard Nixon-style Southern strategy couched in the language of “law and order” — African-Americans have overwhelmingly supported Democrats with white voters tending to favor Republicans.

That’s not the only reason, of course, for the split. Conservative values on faith, family, lifestyle, defense and more figure into the equation. But even when it comes to matters of faith, the values of black evangelical Christians lead them to mostly different electoral choices than their white counterparts.

Southern Democrats pursuing a centrist path to the presidency — think Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — have occasionally broken through. Barack Obama narrowly turned North Carolina purple in 2008. But that surprise was one reason for the extreme course-correction from state GOP leaders and voters that brought on veto-proof majorities, voting restrictions and district line redrawing. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, elected in 2016 in large part because of the missteps of his GOP predecessor Pat McCrory, had his powers diminished before he took the oath of office.

Below the Mason-Dixon Line

It’s no coincidence that many of the states mounting challenges to federal and state redistricting based on race fall in the South — from Alabama to Virginia to Texas. With Democratic support in red states concentrated in large urban areas, it becomes easier to pack those votes in a few districts, making the path easier for Republicans elsewhere. It’s also a tough line for voting rights advocates who want some but not too much attention paid to race.

A map of 2016 shows solid red in the region. That includes West Virginia and Kentucky, where GOP politicians dominated despite campaign rhetoric that promised to weaken or eliminate the social services programs many in those states use more than in Democratic strongholds.

Sure, Democrats may pick up some votes on the margins, and in swing districts that resemble the setting for a tight House special election in Georgia’s 6th District between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff. But a permanent shift is unlikely any time soon.

It’s certainly complicated. But it’s also true that in 2017, the racial divide remains, as the new civil war over Civil War monuments shows yet again. Surveys after Donald Trump’s 2016 victory show many of his voters were driven by economic uncertainty and also anxiety about how America is becoming more diverse.

The bad old days

The previous president, dogged by disrespect and spurious “birther” lies promulgated by Trump, gave a face to those changes and energy to a “Make America Great Again” nostalgia for an America that never would have elected a Barack Obama, and, in fact, would have made the marriage between his white mother and black father illegal in many states.

It’s not that other regions are innocent when it comes to racially polarizing politics. Arizona, which for years elected immigration enforcer and possible law breaker Joe Arpaio as sheriff, comes to mind, though after decades, he was rejected by voters last fall. But the entrenched Lost Cause righteousness of the Confederacy holds particularly firm in the South, where one side still clings to the myth that slavery had nothing to do with it. (And those sides have switched since segregationist Democrats dominated.)

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu showed eloquence and courage in his speech explaining the decision to move that city’s larger-than-life statuary monuments to Confederate heroes and white supremacy.

“This is,” he said recently, “about showing the whole world that we, as a city and as a people, are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes, with violence.”

But Landrieu, a Democrat, made the speech without another election immediately ahead of him. It drew a call from Mississippi Republican state Rep. Karl Oliver on Facebook — followed by an apology — that Louisiana leaders removing the monuments should be “lynched.”

Oliver’s seat is probably safe, despite his inflammatory call to arms, just as my own U.S. congressman, Robert Pittenger, has survived proclaiming on TV that protesters in Charlotte “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not,” and saying those who don’t like their states’ health care could move.

As I wrote in an open letter to him in The Root: “In my carefully drawn congressional district, a rutabaga with an ‘R’ after its name could beat any Democratic challenger — even, I suspect, Jesus Christ himself.” (He actually is being challenged by my son’s high school classmate, though other opponents have so far fallen short.)

North Carolina long cultivated a progressive reputation highlighted by politicians such as moderate Gov. Terry Sanford in the 1960s and former Mayor Harvey Gantt, elected Charlotte’s first black mayor in the 1980s. Yet Democrat Gantt ran into the buzz saw of Democrat-turned-Republican Jesse Helms and his racially tinged ads in 1990s Senate races.

Despite two strikes against them from the Supreme Court, on voter ID laws and redistricting, the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly will be back. After all, they found time to pass a 3 a.m. bill cutting education funds in districts represented by Democrats.

Is it all about race? No. But to ignore the ghosts of racial discord and resentment is to be blind. The spirits take on real form in the voting booth; expect America, especially the American South, to be haunted for some time.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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