Is Landrieu The Last Southern Democrat?

Per the Christian Science Monitor, “If Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana loses her runoff election on Saturday, there will be no more white Democrats from the Deep South in the Senate. Racial polarization of the two main parties has never been more stark”.

However, it seems overly simplistic to frame it as merely a matter of race. That’s a disservice to what’s actually happening, a change in voting patterns based around issues, as much as anything else.

White Southerners have been moving to the GOP for decades, starting with the civil rights era of the 1960s. Social issues – abortion, gay rights, guns – still loom large in the South, and culturally, the national Democratic Party is out of sync with most white voters there.

“White Louisiana voters are really just catching up to where white voters in Mississippi and Alabama were a decade or so ago,” says Michael Henderson, a political scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “This has a lot less to do with Landrieu than with the long transition in Louisiana’s political landscape.”

White voters haven’t so much abandoned Mary Landrieu, Barack Obama and the party they represent. It can just as validly be said that, their party abandoned issues and economic policies that are important to them. The Monitor can say oil, but what that translates to is jobs in Louisiana. After all, Bobby Jindal is the governor of Louisiana. To ascribe too much of Landrieu’s expected defeat and, more broadly, Democrat defeats in the South to race seems silly.

“The attachment to New Deal economics persisted longer among Catholic voters” in Louisiana, says Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans. “They switched over to the social-issues agenda – abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, education vouchers – a bit later than the largely Evangelical Protestant white vote in many of these other Deep South states.”

Landrieu is Catholic and calls herself pro-life, which has helped her in the past. But in 2014, her support for the Affordable Care Act hurt her, beyond the general distaste for the law in her state. The law’s provision for contraception and a widespread belief that it covers abortion were a negative among Catholic voters.

Another element of Obama’s record that has hurt Landrieu is his approach to energy, the economic engine of Louisiana. After the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama suspended oil drilling there for six months. He has also delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.