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Jeff Sessions didn’t change since 1986. Here’s what did.

Once, there were Republicans and Southerners who needed black votes.

jeff sessions
Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986
Terry Ashe/LIFE Images/Getty

At first glance, it seems almost inexplicable that Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions appears to be floating effortlessly toward confirmation as attorney general, a full 30 years after the Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination to be a federal judge because of his history of racism. There’s no evidence that Sessions’ attitudes have changed. Republicans controlled the Senate then, as they do now. And surely public attitudes about race have changed dramatically, for the better, since the Reagan era. Haven’t they?

To understand why Sessions faced enough opposition in 1986 to derail his nomination, but doesn’t face the same resistance today, we need to look back at who opposed Sessions, and why. The answer shows just how dramatically the parties have aligned along racial lines, with consequences that go well beyond the Sessions nomination itself.

Three Judiciary Committee members cast the key votes against Sessions in 1986. Two were Republicans, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland. The third was a Democrat, Howell Heflin, who, like Sessions, was from Alabama. (As it happens, Sessions took Heflin’s Senate seat when Heflin retired a decade later.) For a senator to publicly oppose a nominee from his or her own state was in some ways more dramatic than voting against a nominee of the same party, especially at that time.

Specter and Mathias were iconic moderate/liberal Republicans, of the faction described in Geoffrey Kabaservice’s fascinating book Rule and Ruin. But far more important, their political success was unusually dependent on support from African-American voters. In 1986, both were near the end of a term — Specter’s first, Mathias’s last — after winning elections in 1980. It’s hard to find the kind of voting data by race that we’re accustomed to for recent elections, but all indications are that both received significant shares of the black vote in their states.

Specter, for example, won Philadelphia 50 percent to 48 percent, with the support of African-American leaders including future Mayor John Street, far exceeding Ronald Reagan’s 34 percent of the city vote. (By contrast, in 2016, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey was supported by only 17 percent of Philadelphia voters.)

Mathias was almost pushed out of the Republican Party in 1980 by an emerging conservative wing in the state, but once he won renomination, his reelection was much easier than Specter’s win. Having long advocated that Republicans do more to reach out to black voters, Mathias in 1980 became, and remains, the only Republican to win Baltimore City, which was majority African American then and now.

Heflin, on the other hand, represented an important group of Southern Democrats who continued to win elections through the 1990s even as the older white “Dixiecrat” voters moved to the GOP. This bloc, which included Louisiana’s John Breaux, Georgia’s Sam Nunn, and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina, along with several others in the Senate and many in the House, was every bit as essential to the celebrated bipartisanship of the recent past as were the moderate Republicans. By the 1980s, most were not winning majorities of the white vote, but Heflin, reelected by a wide majority in 1984, offset that loss by winning more than 75 percent of the African-American vote, by one account. The next year, Heflin joined several other Southern Democrats in opposing Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court.

But they were transitional figures. Within a few years, the political path that Heflin, Nunn, and others traveled had closed, as white voters became so reliably Republican that it became impossible to construct a cross-racial coalition boosted by huge support among black voters in order to win. Heflin was the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate. His colleague Richard Shelby, reelected as a Democrat in 1992, chose another path, switching parties in 1994 and becoming one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate.

The difference between 1986 and today is not that racial attitudes have changed for the worse — they haven’t. It’s the configuration of politics. Because white voters are increasingly reliable Republicans, not one Republican senator needs African-American voters or feels any obligation to pay attention to their preferences. Those who now pass for moderates, such as Maine’s Susan Collins, tend to represent states with almost no black population. And no senator from the Deep South depends on a multiracial coalition. If they entertain any doubts about Sen. Sessions and his backward attitudes about race, civil liberties, or voting rights, it will not be because they give a moment’s thought to constituents who might be most directly affected, as Specter, Mathias, and Heflin did.

It’s possible that at some point in the future, in states such as Georgia, the nonwhite voting population, combined with college-educated whites who tend to be more racially liberal, will rise to the level where both Democratic and Republican politicians will again have to focus their attention on African-American voters. A robust Voting Rights Act would help as well. But the political world of 1986 is long past.

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