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2020 figures show increases among voting groups that have been swinging to Democrats
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
(CFP) — Take a map showing population shifts across the South over the last 10 years and put it over a map of where Joe Biden performed best in 2020, and the connection will appear obvious.
The counties in the South that have gained population — large cities and surrounding suburbs — are the same places where Biden did well; the counties that shrank — rural areas and small towns — were places where Donald Trump rolled.
New, detailed, local-level data released August 12 by the U.S. Census Bureau show that when Republicans across the South redraw lines for congressional and legislative districts to equalize population, maximizing their partisan advantage will be much trickier than it was a decade ago.
True, Republicans will still control the entire process in every Southern state except Louisiana and Virginia, which will give them ample opportunity to draw favorable maps. But this slicing and dicing will still have to account for the fact that the sheer number of hostile voters is growing at such a pace that gerrymandering will become ever more difficult.
The geographic partisan divide reflects another shift that has negative implications for the GOP — the Southern electorate is becoming less white.
In every Southern state except for South Carolina and Tennessee, the percentage of the population that self-classifies as white dropped — in some cases, dramatically. In Texas, it dropped 17.5%; in Florida, 12%. There are now five Southern states — Texas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana — where the white population is less than 60%, giving Democrats a base on which to build.
While the black population nationwide has been relatively stable since 2010, it grew faster than the national average in every Southern state except Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma, as the reverse migration of African Americans back to the region continues.
The most notable population change in the 2020 census was among Hispanic residents, who grew nationwide by 23% and now make up nearly 19% of the total population. But every Southern state except Texas saw the Hispanic population grow even faster than the national average, making them a much more visible presence in areas where they have previous had little political impact.
For decades, the bedrock of Republican strength in the South has been white voters in rural areas, small towns and suburbs, offsetting Democrat strength among African American voters and inner-city urban voters. Maps featuring suburban-rural districts have thus been used to maximum effect.
However, the population shifts in the new census numbers will dictate that rural districts with shrinking populations will have to expand to include more suburban territory, at the same time that Southern suburbs are becoming less reliably Republican.
In Georgia, for example, three counties in the Atlanta urban-suburban core — Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb — added 376,000 people over the last decade. Joe Biden carried all three, and Democrats have flipped two U.S. House seats here and gained a dozen state legislative seats. So can new lines be drawn to account for both the population boost and the political shift?
In Texas, eight counties added more than 200,000 each during the decade, a total of 2.5 million people combined, and all were in major metro areas — Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. By contrast, 144 counties lost population. So when legislators draw two new U.S. House districts, they will almost certainly have to be rooted in metro areas where Democrats have made gains.
This is not to suggest, of course, that Republican hegemony in the South is threatened in the short-term by these population shifts. Hispanic voters remain a relatively small part of the electorate outside of Florida and Texas, white voters are more monolithically Republican than in much of the rest of the country, and the suburbs remain competitive.
But amid unprecedented scrutiny of the map-making process — with activist groups ready to pounce on maps they feel are unfair — drawing new political lines that maximize Republican gains will be a fraught process.
The legal fight over Texas’s 2010 maps didn’t end until 2018. We can expect the same this time around, and probably in more places.
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Big Risk: Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott double down on mandates despite unpredictability of COVID crisis
Will short-term gain for leading charge against COVID-19 restrictions backfire if cases surge in schools?
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
(CFP) — A number of Southern Republican political leaders — most notably, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott — have decided to take a huge gamble; namely, to lead the charge against new COVID-19 restrictions, despite the Delta variant ripping across their states, filling up hospitals and stretching front-line workers to their breaking point.
It’s an experiment — literally — that is particularly risky given that one of the populations being experimented are hundreds of thousands of school children, whose parents cannot get them COVID-19 vaccinations even if they want to.
If DeSantis and Abbott are right — that all of the doomsaying and caterwauling by public health officials is an overblown overreaction — their gamble is likely to delight their base and pay dividends when they come up for re-election next year.
But if they are wrong — if busloads of children start getting sick or dying — these current prohibitive favorites could find themselves in electoral trouble. Which begs the question, is it worth the risk?
To see the possible pitfalls of this strategy, one need only look at the school district in Marion, Arkansas, where, after just the first week of classes in August, 900 students and staff were in quarantine.
That was enough to convince Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson that his decision back in April to sign into law a ban on mask mandates, pushed through by Republican lawmakers, was a mistake. It was not, however, enough to convince those lawmakers to reverse the mask ban when Hutchinson summoned them back to Little Rock for a special session to do so.
To be clear, neither DeSantis and Abbott are anti-vaxxers. On the other hand, they are not merely taking a personal political stand against mask and vaccine mandates — they are aggressively pushing back against local officials and even private businesses who want to put these measures into place themselves.
Two hallmarks of traditional conservatism are giving power to local officials to make decisions they think best for their communities (particularly school boards) and giving businesses free hand to run their enterprises as they see fit. Both have gone out the window amid a conservative backlash to mask and vaccine mandates, a wave which DeSantis and Abbott seem eager to ride.
DeSantis has gone so far as to oppose hospitals requiring staff on the front lines of the pandemic to get vaccinations, and he has gone to court to block cruise lines from requiring vaccinations for passengers, which the cruise companies desperately want.
Given the devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 among cruise ship passengers during the early days of the pandemic, cruise companies want to err on the side of caution; DeSantis is coming down instead on the side of an expansive sense of personal liberty, even at the expense of public health.
Both Abbott and DeSantis are responding to a part of their base that is skeptical of vaccines and vehemently opposed to mask mandates and lockdowns. Some of these people even argue that masks are harmful for children, an assertion not supported by any reputable medical research.
The irony, of course, if that if these people had gotten vaccinated, the COVID-19 might now be mostly over, eliminating the possibility of mandates or lockdowns.
It makes sense, with perverted logic, for people who believe COVID is a hoax to support dispensing with restrictions even though most people are still unvaccinated. But if the last 18 months have taught Abbott and DeSantis anything, it is surely that COVID isn’t a hoax.
Abbott is facing primary challengers who already complain that he’s taken too many COVID precautions, perhaps explaining why he’s so resistant to more. DeSantis is not yet being primaried on this issue, so taking a hard line here is perhaps a way to stopping a challenge from getting off the ground — not to mention helping him with a possible 2024 presidential run.
Still, a recent Florida polled showed DeSantis’s job approval under water, in a state where the last three governor’s races were decided by 1 point or less. Texas is more Republican but not out of reach for Democrats if the public comes to believe people have died needlessly under Abbott’s stewardship.
Two other facts call into question the wisdom of DeSantis and Abbott’s big risk.
First, the fallout from the COVID pandemic likely cost Donald Trump re-election, something even the former president has been willing to concede. So, perhaps this is a lesson to which more attention needs to be paid.
And second, COVID has proven to not only be tremendously deadly but highly unpredictable. So, climbing out on a political limb and hoping that the worst public health crisis in a century will turn out all right in the end would seem a dubious long-term strategy, even if the base lustily cheers in the short term.
However, for better or worse, both DeSantis and Abbott have embraced this risk. So in that bed they will now have to lie.
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Former Democratic legislator from Louisville will face uphill climb to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Rand in 2022
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
LOUISVILLE (CFP) — When he launched his first run for the U.S. Senate in 2020, few observers gave Charles Booker a snowball’s chance in a Kentucky August.
He was just 32, had served in the legislature for just one year, and was trying to wrestle the Democratic nomination away from Amy McGrath, a fundraising powerhouse who had the full backing of Senate Democrats and their leader, Chuck Schumer.
But then, Booker took a leading role in social justice protests in Louisville after the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, his charismatic style caught the imagination of the Democratic left, and — amid an uneven, uninspiring and hyper-cautious campaign from McGrath — he came within 16,000 votes of pulling off what would have one of the year’s biggest primary upsets.
Exiting the race, Booker told his supporters, “Don’t ever let someone tell you what’s impossible.”
A year later, he’s trying the impossible again, this time with a run for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, held by Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul.
“A lot of people don’t believe that change is possible in Kentucky. We’re going to prove the doubters wrong,” Booker told supporters at his kickoff rally in Louisville July 1. “We’re going to win this race, and we’re going to transform Kentucky, and it starts right now. Let’s go.”
Video of Booker’s announcement speech at end of story.
And Booker made it clear that whether or not his optimism is borne out, or whether or not the race against Paul ends up being competitive in the end, his quest to unseat Paul will be fiery, unapologetically liberal and in-your-face, in a way McGrath never was.
“Randal Howard Paul — I see you. I see you, but you don’t see us,” Booker said. “Rand Paul thinks we are a joke. He mocks us whenever he opens his mouth. He’s mocking us. He’s an embarrassment to Kentucky because he does not care.”
“He thinks his job is to stir dysfunction, to weaponize hate and essentially dismiss Kentuckians altogether.”
Rand’s response to Booker’s announcement telegraphed the likely Republican strategy against him; namely, pounding him on his more left-wing positions in a conservative state: “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky.”
What happened to McGrath in 2020 illustrates the decidedly uphill nature of Booker’s quest in 2022. She spent $90 million to lose to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell by 20 points, failing to even break 40%.
Of course, McConnell is a more formidable political force than Paul, and McGrath’s near loss to Booker in the Democratic primary — in which he beat her in Louisville-Jefferson County by 36,000 votes — was a glaring sign of her weakness as a candidate. Booker does have stronger political skills, and it seems likely at this point that he won’t have to battle through a primary.
Still, Donald Trump carried Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, and Paul heads into the race with Trump’s endorsement. And a Democrat has not won a Senate race in the commonwealth for 30 years.
Booker’s theory of the race is that he can reach, rally and motivate voters on the left, rather than trimming his sails to appear more moderate, which did not work for McGrath. To that end, he has hired two campaign operatives involved in Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock’s runoff win in January, which won with a rallying-the-base strategy.
Booker, like Warnock, is a charismatic African-American candidate with an engaging, pulpit speaking style. However, Kentucky has a much smaller black population than Georgia and is much less urban. Louisville’s impact on the statewide vote will not be as determinative as Atlanta’s was.
Indeed, Booker’s loss to McGrath shows the challenges of a base-centric style in the Bluegrass. He beat her in Louisville and Lexington, but she won the primary by carrying most of the rest of the state.
So, the key question for 2022 is, can he find enough votes in more heavily populated parts of the state to overcome Paul’s margins in more rural areas? Or can he cut into those margins with an economic appeal to rural voters in poorer counties in Eastern Kentucky, where Democrats still have local influence?
Another wild card in this race is the amount of institutional support Booker might get from national Democrats, for a race that is seen as rather less than winnable. The powers-that-be who went all in for McGrath may be wary of going down that road again, although, as Paul’s foil, Booker should be able to raise enough money on his own to be competitive.
It is not impossible for a Democrat to win statewide in Kentucky, as Governor Andy Beshear proved in 2019. Then again, Beshear was running against Matt Bevin, whose performance as governor had made him as popular as a bad rash. Paul starts the race in much better shape.
Booker starts the race with an audacious belief in his own chances, and he has clearly decided that caution is not the better part of valor. While that may or may not end up making a senator, it will make the Kentucky Senate race among them most compelling of the 2022 cycle.
Video of Charles Booker’s announcement
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Why, despite the summertime chatter, putting resources into these states makes little strategic sense
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
The last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried Georgia, The Cover Girls (remember them?) were wishing on a star. The last time a Democrat carried Texas, people were still wearing bell bottoms.
Every four years, the pundit class and Democrats in these states insist that this time will be different — this year, finally, these states are going to flip. And every four years, Republicans scoff at their wishful thinking and hubris.
It’s deja vu all over again. Joe Biden’s campaign is making noises about competing in the Peach and Lone Star states, committing significant resources for a serious ground game in places where one hasn’t been seen in a generation.
So what are the chances this will actually happen? Probably pretty slim — not because it isn’t possible for Biden to win these states but because, if they are within reach, winning them won’t be necessary.
First, the numbers. Donald Trump carried Georgia by slightly more than 5 points in 2016, the smallest winning margin for a Republican since Bob Dole won by less than 2 points in 1996 in a three-way race. (By way of contrast, George W. Bush won by nearly 17 points in 2004.)
In Texas, Trump’s margin was larger, just under 9 points, but that was also the smallest winning margin for a Republican since Dole. (Bush won by more than 20 points.)
Clearly, the trend lines are headed in the Democrats’ direction, as even Republicans in these states would concede. These states are within (a long) reach.
However, in considering Electoral College strategy, it is helpful to think of the presidential race as a tug-of-war, with states arrayed along the rope in order from most Democratic to most Republican. The goal is to pull the rope far enough that there are at least 270 electoral votes on your side.
In 2016, six states on Trump’s side of the rope were closer than Georgia — the Southern states of Florida and North Carolina, along with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. Those six and Ohio were closer than Texas.
So, if Georgia is truly within reach for Biden in 2020, six Trump states are likely already in Biden’s hands; make that seven if Texas is in play. And if Biden is already carrying all of those states, he won’t need to bother with Georgia or Texas. He’s already won.
This is why, strategically, it would make little sense for the Biden campaign to put resources into Georgia and Texas. But there are three reasons we might see them do it anyway.
First, engaging in these states could help drive up Democratic turnout, which could help in U.S. Senate and down ballot races. However, presidential campaigns aren’t known for their altruism; we’re only likely to see this if the race is a blowout for Biden and he can spare the resources to benefit other candidates.
Second, making a play for Texas or Georgia could be an insurance policy in the event that something unexpected happens in one of the closer states, as happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 in Michigan and Wisconsin. However, given that experience, Biden won’t be caught napping like Clinton was, making such a surprise less likely.
And third, putting resources into Georgia or Texas could be a way to troll the Trump campaign and force it to engage in these states. Even talking about the possibility forces the Trump forces to consider countermeasures.
However, if Trump needs to shore up either of these states come November, his battle is already lost, and what happens in Texas and Georgia won’t matter (although Biden could make a play for them to run up the score.)
So, all this summertime chatter about competing in Georgia and Texas may make interesting cable news conversation, but the smart money says that in the end, Biden won’t bite.
Then again, betting on presidential politics these days might, admittedly, be a bit of a fool’s errand.
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Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.
For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.
An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”
In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.
But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.
In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.
Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.
With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.
The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.
Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.
But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.
While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.
The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.
State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.
Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.
Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.
The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.
In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.
Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.
The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.
In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.
The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.
Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.
That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.
Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.
Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.