By Tom Baxter
The first time I saw Mary Landrieu, I was in New Orleans working on a story about then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. The silver-haired daddy-o of Louisiana politics, as I described him then, was leaving a banquet in a Canal Street hotel with a gaggle of aides and reporters in tow when he ran into Landrieu, a New Orleans legislator running for state treasurer.
The moment sticks in my mind because Edwards stopped and kissed Landrieu’s hand, an act of Cajun gallantry that also had the air of a potentate acknowledging the scion of another principality. For this was the daughter of the legendary former New Orleans mayor, Moon Landrieu (and the sister of the current mayor, Mitch Landrieu).
Landrieu and Edwards went down to defeat Saturday, and with them the last vestiges of the old Southern Democratic establishment.
Landrieu had won three tough U.S. Senate elections, and went down swinging in the fourth. Her defeat in the runoff election was a foregone conclusion after the vote in November. She made the race closer than the polls suggested and still lost to Republican Bill Cassidy by 12 percentage points.
That Edwards was even in a race, at the age of 87, having served nearly a tenth of that lifetime in federal prison and having had a reality show about him canceled, was a wonder. Even so, and running in a solidly Republican congressional district, early polls showed he had a shot. He also beat the line on Saturday (as he might put it) but fell to Republican Garret Graves.
It’s in part a tribute to the political skills of the Democrats there that it took this long for the last traces of Democratic power to be erased in Louisiana. Landrieu caught some heat in the campaign for saying out loud that “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans” when asked why President Obama was so unpopular in her state. But she was pointing to one of the stark realities in politics across the South since Obama’s election.
Lyndon Johnson’s prophecy that his party had “lost the South for a generation” after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is still widely quoted. It’s seldom noted how wide of the mark LBJ’s prophecy fell. In the generation that followed him, former segregationists and civil rights activists formed biracial coalitions which kept the party in power across the region. The party even produced two Southern presidents.
Certainly, the GOP made steady inroads during this period, converting the South for a while into a two-tiered political establishment: Republican in presidential elections and Democratic in state politics. But late in Ronald Reagan’s second term, when Landrieu first ran for state office in a special election, all her opponents were fellow Democrats.
The Democratic erosion since then would have proceded with or without Obama. With him it has moved much faster, and the lost generation is likely to be the one upcoming, not the one which began in the ‘60s.
In states like Florida and Virginia, we may be moving toward a reversal of the old order, with Democrats competing successfully in presidential elections while Republicans dominate down-ballot. It will be very hard for Democrats to continue their success in the South if they can’t produce national candidates from the region, however.
One of a very few bright spots for Democrats in the South this year was just across the state line in the Florida 2nd Congressional district, which includes Tallahassee and Panama City. Lineage mattered in this race in a way it didn’t in Louisiana or Georgia. Gwen Graham, who won a hair-thin victory over a two-term Republican incumbent, is the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
Democrats in Washington should do all they can to support Graham, but they also need to find fresh strategies for the party in the South. Inescapably, that will mean finding ways to revitalize the old cross-racial coalitions which defied Johnson’s expectations for a generation.
When people talk about Southern politics they tend to focus on the descendents of the fire-eaters, as pro-secessionist radicals were called. Less is said about the straddlers, who have often found ways to be on both sides of the same issue to achieve their aims. The post-60s Southern Democrats were straddlers all. Give us another season or two of gridlock, and we may grow nostalgic for straddling once again.