Travis Childers may be an important part of the Democratic Party’s future. After GOP Congressman Roger Wicker of Mississippi was elevated to the upper chamber to replace outgoing Sen. Trent Lott, Childers ran for the open seat and won. This was the third consecutive special election victory for the Democrats in a Republican-leaning congressional district, making it all the more likely that Nancy Pelosi’s ranks will be strengthened in November.
Yet Childers is no Nancy Pelosi. He is a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-school prayer, pro-traditional marriage, anti-immigration amnesty conservative Democrat who vowed never to vote for a tax increase. When his Republican opponent tried to tie him to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Childers hit back—but pointedly did not embrace his party’s presumptive standard-bearer. Thus he was able to win in a district that voted 62 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. The Democrats had failed to field a candidate for the district’s House seat that year. In 2006, Wicker’s Democratic challenger won just 34 percent of the vote.
We may be seeing the resurgence of what was thought to be an endangered species: the Southern white conservative Democrat.
Childers isn’t the only recent example. One of the Democrats’ other 2008 special election victories came in Louisiana, where Don Cazayoux beat Republican Woody Jenkins by a slim margin. Cazayoux is also a pro-life, pro-gun conservative Democrat who was willing to go toe-to-toe with Jenkins on his culture war bona fides. Jenkins is, to put it mildly, no moderate Republican.
Only a few years ago, a Southern white conservative who aspired to be elected to anything higher than a state legislative seat would have been well advised to leave the party of Jefferson for the party of Lincoln. Politicians as varied as Lott, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Pat Robertson, and even Phil Gramm began their careers in the Democratic Party. The migration of conservative Democrats to the GOP accelerated under Ronald Reagan and continued throughout the 1990s. Republicans won the 1994 elections in no small part by picking off conservative Southern districts that had been represented by Democrats for decades—just like the Democrats’ Watergate Congress was to a certain extent built on the backs of liberal Republicans twenty years earlier.
Many of the conservative Democrats who survived the 1994 GOP juggernaut thought it best to switch parties. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Congressmen Billy Tauzin (Louisiana), Greg Laughlin (Texas), Jimmy Hayes (Louisiana), and Mike Parker (Mississippi) all jettisoned their Democratic affiliations shortly after the election and joined the new Republican majority. Tauzin and Hayes used to host Blue Dog Coalition meetings in their offices. Their decision to become Republicans sent a signal that the entire Blue Dog project had become untenable.
Congressmen Virgil Goode (Virginia), Ralph Hall (Texas), and Rodney Alexander (Louisiana) got the message and later joined them in the GOP. Conservative Democrats who refused to bolt, like 13-term Congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas, were frequently beaten by Republicans if they did not retire on their own. Conservative Democratic party-switchers also fueled the GOP’s gubernatorial gains throughout the South: Kirk Fordice (Mississippi), Fob James (Alabama), Mike Foster (Louisiana), and Sonny Perdue (Georgia). Some of them were their states’ first Republican chief executives since Reconstruction.
Sen. James Webb, the former Reagan secretary of the navy, is the most prominent recent Southern patriot to switch from Republican to Democrat. He left a Democratic Party that had become too soft and dovish only to return when the GOP had become too neoconservative and hawkish. But he may not be the only—and is certainly not the most conservative—example.
Bob Conley left the Republican Party over Iraq, uncontrolled immigration, and what he regards as unfair trade. But Conley is a firm opponent of abortion, amnesty, gun control, and gay marriage and has with some justice been described as “to the right of just about any Democrat you can think of since Larry McDonald,” if not the “best Democrat since Grover Cleveland.” Conley is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in South Carolina and plans to run to incumbent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s right in the general.
When Billy Tauzin left Congress to become a lobbyist, his son Billy Tauzin III ran as a Republican to succeed him. Instead the Tauzins lost—by just 569 votes—to the kind of conservative Democrat they thought had been proven irrelevant. Charlie Melancon emphasized his “Louisiana Values,” including his pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-marriage stands. The Democrat joked that the 2004 campaign was the first time anyone had ever called him a liberal. And because he generally voted as a social conservative, Melancon won reelection by a 15-point margin in 2006.
So far, national Democrats haven’t discouraged Southern conservative newcomers. Congressional campaign committee heads helped Childers and Cazayoux, just as they did Heath Shuler in 2006. They helped recruit Webb and promoted him over the more conventionally liberal Harris Miller. Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel have even been willing to boost pro-life and pro-gun Democrats north of the Mason Dixon line, including Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and both Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly in Indiana. Jack Davis has even run as a Pat Buchanan Democrat against Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds in New York. It may not seem like much of an innovation to run culturally conservative candidates in culturally conservative areas, but it took years for the Democrats to decide that they liked being in the majority better than imposing litmus tests.
The new Dixiecrats differ from the old in important respects. Unlike the Thurmonds and the Wallaces who came before them, the new guys largely eschew racial politics. Where even relatively liberal Southern Democrats once supported Jim Crow or opposed civil-rights legislation—think William Fulbright, Robert Byrd, and Al Gore, Sr.—the new conservative Democrats rely heavily on black voters. Childers won in a district that was 26 percent black. Adding their votes to those of white conservative Democrats who usually support Republicans for federal office gave him the majority.
Cazayoux assembled a similar coalition. He might not have been elected had it not been for an influx of black, disproportionately poor voters into his once-Republican congressional district after Hurricane Katrina. (There’s a possibility a black independent candidate named Michael Jackson will cause him to lose the seat to a Republican in November.)
Another difference: While the boll weevils helped pass the Reagan economic program in the 1980s and their Blue Dog successors tended to be fiscally conservative but socially moderate, the new Southern white Democrats are more conservative on social issues than economics.
In 2007, Heath Shuler, Charlie Melancon, and Gene Taylor of Mississippi all earned zeroes from NARAL Pro-Choice America—as well as F’s from the National Taxpayers Union for their votes on taxes and spending. The same was true for non-Southern conservative Democrats like Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly. Donnelly voted 82 percent of the time with the socially conservative Eagle Forum but received a zero from the economically conservative Club for Growth. Ellsworth also got a zero from the anti-tax group while scoring even higher than Donnelly with Eagle Forum.
On foreign policy, the new conservative Democrats are decidedly a mixed bag. Some, like Conley, are intensely critical of neoconservatives and the war. Others, much like conservative Democrats during the Cold War, are hawkish. All ten of the House Democrats who voted against withdrawal from Iraq in July 2007, for example, are Southern or Midwestern conservatives. The blue-dog Ellsworth is more supportive of the Bush-McCain Iraq policy than the Republican he unseated, John Hostettler who was one six GOP congressmen to vote against authorizing the use of force and has written an antiwar book since leaving office.
It remains to be seen whether the Dixiecrat revival will last. A successful political party ultimately benefits all its factions, even those that reject its dominant ideology. The success of conservative Republicans in the 1980s and ‘90s brought about the revival of moderate Republicanism in some parts of the country as well. Much like the Democrats today, the GOP’s brand was strong enough to win even in hostile territories. Aided by Democratic missteps and misgovernment, Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, Richard Riordan, William Weld, and Pete Wilson could win elections by embracing the national party platform on fiscal policy and law-and-order while taking the popular local positions on abortion, gun control, and gay rights. The GOP held mayoralties in New York City, Los Angeles, and Jersey City as well as the governorships of every New England state but Vermont for at least half of the 1990s.
The Travis Childers Democrats may simply be the Giuliani-Riordan-Weld Republicans in reverse. And just like those Republicans, they may be the first to lose power if the Democratic boom comes to an end. The California GOP, with the ignoble exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in shambles before the end of the 1990s. Republicans hemorrhaged elected offices in the Northeast in 2006, even in once-rock-ribbed New Hampshire. New England sends only one Republican, Chris Shays of Connecticut, to the House. Some of these conservative Democrats could be at risk even in a lackluster Republican year like 2008, as John McCain will beat Obama in many of their districts.
Another possibility is that as the national Democratic Party becomes secure in its majorities, it will no longer need conservative Democrats—and will no longer tolerate their dissent. This is what made so many of their forebears ripe for the taking by the Republicans. To cite just one notable example, Phil Gramm’s support for the Reagan tax-and-budget plan got him kicked off the House Budget Committee by the Democratic leadership, so he switched parties. The Shulers and the Childers may be allowed to continue their opposition to pro-choice legislation as long as their votes aren’t needed, but Democratic leaders won’t go out of their way to help them or recruit other candidates like them.
If they buckle under liberal pressure, these Democrats could forfeit white conservative support. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, who carries one of the best regarded family names among pro-life Democrats, already voted to overturn the Mexico City policy prohibiting federal funding of groups that promote or perform abortions overseas. As erstwhile pro-lifer Harry Reid climbed the Democratic leadership ranks, he went from voting with NARAL just 5 percent of the time in 1999 to 100 percent in 2007. Like Jim Webb, the new Southern Democrats could be little better than Reid clones.
Yet there are some trends that might help conservative Democrats stick around for a while. Such Democrats have long been thicker on the ground than Rockefeller Republicans. Oklahoma, for example, hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, has two Republican senators, and a 4-to-1 GOP majority in its U.S. House delegation. But a majority of voters in this 78.3 percent white state remain registered Democrats.
These old yellow-dog Democrats may be about to receive new reinforcements: young white evangelicals. Recent polling suggests they remain pro-life—a Pew Forum survey found them to be even more opposed to abortion than their elders—but are more supportive of activist government solutions to poverty, environmental problems, and health care than the old Religious Right. They may be receptive to Democrats who are socially conservative but economically moderate to liberal. According to the Pew poll, support for Republicans among evangelicals under the age of 30 has dropped 15 points over the last two years. When Relevant Magazine polled its young Christian readership, they found leftward movement on a number of issues and estrangement from Republicans whose name wasn’t Mike Huckabee.
Gene Taylor may be an example of the kind of Democrat who can appeal to these voters. The Mississippian has been in Congress since winning a special election in 1989, representing a district that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1956. Taylor opposes abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, gun control, and untrammeled immigration while supporting the death penalty, a balanced budget amendment, and another constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. Taylor earned a 72 rating from the American Conservative Union in 2007 and voted with the Republican rather than the Democratic leadership 54.2 percent of the time in 2004.
Nevertheless, Taylor is enough of an economic populist to win plaudits from progressives in The American Prospect. He opposes free trade agreements, criticizes big business, and voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. He may not be enough of an environmentalist for young evangelicals—he only scores 50 percent with the League of Conservation Voters, much better than a conservative Republican and much worse than a liberal Democrat—but his big-government conservatism has already proved viable in an area that frequently votes Republican. He has won reelection with as much as 81 percent of the vote and was unopposed in 2006, after averaging 73 percent in his last three “competitive” elections.
For a long time, Taylor looked like an outlier. He frequently finds himself among just a handful of House Democrats breaking ranks, no larger than the number of antiwar Republicans in Congress. He even refused to vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker until 2006. But Taylor’s brand of Democratic politics may still work for other office-seekers in the South. Just ask the latest addition to his state congressional delegation, Travis Childers.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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