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Democrats and the South: There are only 50 states, a party can't abandon 9 of them

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Around the turn of the millennium, a certain segment of the punditocracy developed an unhealthy obsession with the idea that Democrats desperately needed to take action to radically enhance the party's appeal in the South. Under the circumstances, a dose of skeptical punditry (recall Thomas Schaller's 2008 book Whistling Past Dixie, for example) were a breath of fresh air.

But now the pendulum risks swinging too far in the other direction. Michael Tomasky argues that with the GOP now holding every Senate seat and every governor's mansion and every state legislature in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, Democrats should simply write the region off.

Not temper their expectations. Not refuse to make drastic ideological shifts to try to win there. Just give up. "At the congressional level," Tomasky writes, "and from there on down, the Democrats should just forget about the place."

The North Carolina problem

Tomasky's argument begins to fall apart almost as soon as he states it. He acknowledges that the former Confederate states of Virginia and Florida are important to the party's presidential prospects. Then he says "maybe you can throw in North Carolina under the right circumstances." And also that "at some point in the near future, you'll be able to talk about Georgia as a state a Democrat can capture." But then he waves it away with the thought that "that's presidential politics."

But presidential politics doesn't exist in some hermetically sealed box. Not only did Obama carry North Carolina in 2008, Kay Hagan won an open Senate seat there. And while Hagan lost in 2014, she ran well ahead of Obama's approval rating. If North Carolina and maybe-someday-soon-Georgia are going to be competitive in presidential races, then there's no reason they shouldn't have competitive Senate and gubernatorial races. Indeed, quite the opposite, since a statewide candidate in those states could easily be less liberal than Obama and still far more liberal than a southern Republican.

The Massachusetts problem

In 2014, Republicans didn't just win elections in the south. They didn't just win in Ohio and Wisconsin either. They won a governor's race in Illinois. And another in Maryland. And another in Massachusetts. In part, all three of those races reflected idiosyncratic factors. In part, all three reflected Obama's unpopularity. But whatever they reflected, they reflected the basic reality that no state is "unwinnable" if the circumstances are right. And no set of circumstances is so unlikely that it's not worth being ready for.

It's worth recalling that this massive GOP sweep came just six short years after a massive Democratic sweep. A lot of politics is driven by events and events are unpredictable. Meanwhile, weird stuff happens. A prudent political party doesn't write anything off. It always tries to recruit solid candidates and contest races, knowing that sometimes opportunity knocks.

There's a median voter everywhere

Last but by no means least, the basic logic of two-party politics says there's always some candidate who could win some race. After all, conservative southern states don't just vote for Republicans. They tend to feature super-duper conservative parties who vote for incredibly conservative Republicans. Under the circumstances, a Democrat can compete for the local ideological center.

There's no good reason for "the Democrats" to try to shift far enough to the right to win a race in Alabama, but even Alabama has a median voter and it makes sense for Alabama Democrats to try to nominate candidates conservative enough to compete for his allegiances.

Or consider Texas, where Democrats got their hopes way too high in the Wendy Davis race. This very conservative and also quite gerrymandered state happens to be home to 12 members of the House Democratic caucus. The large cities of Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio all have Democratic mayors as do the smaller cities of Austin and El Paso. That's just too many Democrats representing too many people to simply be indifferent to statewide politics.

The brutal reality for the past few cycles worth of statewide Democrats in Texas is that the state is not just conservative, it's really thrived during the Rick Perry years. But that won't last forever. Scandals, missteps, or simply bad luck are bound to happen. And then suddenly unwinnable statewide races will be within reach. If Texas Democrats win, then their task will be to try to do a good job and impress people.

That's how politics works. But it only works if you show up. There's no reason for the national party to bend over backward to cater to the most conservative region, and there's nothing wrong with writing off individual races, but there are only 50 states — you can't just forget about nine of them.

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