SAVANNAH, Ga. — Nearly 50 years ago, every congressman from the Deep South was a white Democrat.
Now the U.S. House has just one white Democrat from the five states that comprise the region: Georgia’s John Barrow.
Barrow last year survived the Republican tide that wiped out 20 white Democratic members of Congress from the across the South, yet his toughest battle may lie ahead. New political maps approved by the Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature leave him politically homeless, placing his residence outside the 12th District that he represents and stripping away the base of his Democratic support — largely African-American — along the coast.
His precarious fate raises a larger question: Can white Democrats chart a course back in the Deep South — Georgia, Mississippi. Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina — where they were once as plentiful as sweet tea on a hot summer day? Or will the party that once dominated the Bible Belt become reliant almost exclusively on black urban voters, leaving the region even more racially polarized?
“For the Democratic Party to be defined by race means that it’s politically marginalized,” said Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor and author of “The Rise of Southern Republicans.”
The recent trend could portend a struggle for Democrats to win statewide offices or be successful outside safe Democratic districts, Black said.
Another outcome is Democratic elected officials who are more liberal than voters in the state, said John Kirincich, a former Georgia Democratic Party head. He served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a conservative white Democrat who lost his seat last year.
“It’s a systematic disenfranchisement of moderate and conservative Democrats,” Kirincich said.
Barrow, 55, a conservative Democrat with deep family roots in the region, pledged to soldier on in his redrawn district and get to know his new constituents. But he lamented the shift away from swing districts that are more representative of the views of most Americans.
“One very real effect of partisan redistricting is that congressional districts have become far more extreme politically than the American public is,” Barrow said. “You have members in ‘safe districts’ that never have to consider what the other side is saying or what is best for the folks back home.”
The Deep South once was solidly Democratic, represented in Washington by white segregationist senators. But after President Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that began to change. Republicans such as Richard Nixon ran on a “Southern strategy” of appealing to white voters unhappy with Democrats over civil rights legislation. Johnson himself recognized there would be a backlash, admitting to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.”
Democrats have had the hardest time in Deep South states in recent years, particularly last November, when Republicans capitalized on voter dissatisfaction with the economy, the health care overhaul and President Barack Obama to score major gains. Republicans now control the governorships and legislatures in the five Deep South states, allowing them to redraw political lines to conform with population changes as measured by the U.S. census.
Georgia Democrats are expected to file a legal challenge to the Republican map, alleging it unfairly dilutes minority voting strength.
Meanwhile, Barrow must focus on winning in his new, more conservative district. Political observers say Barrow will need to forge a new multiracial coalition.
“The Democratic Party cannot allow itself to be defined by race, so John’s fate is ours as well,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and a leader in the civil rights movement.
A trial lawyer and former county commissioner first elected to Congress in 2004, Barrow has survived his share of political near-death experiences.
“John has been handling, fairly masterfully, a swing district for many years now,” said U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican whose district borders Barrow’s and which will now include the Democratic stronghold of Savannah.
“It’s winnable for him to hang in there, but it will be a tough, tough fight,” Kingston added.
Barrow has not said whether he plans to move to the new 12th District.
Barrow has called Savannah home since 2006, when lawmakers drew him out of his old district in Athens, a liberal enclave that’s home to the University of Georgia. Barrow moved to Savannah and eked out a win, defeating Republican Max Burns by just more than 800 votes.
Since then, Barrow has beaten back challenges from the left and the right, straddling a careful line between satisfying his largely African-American Democratic base and crossing party lines to appeal to more conservative white swing voters.
Tom Bordeaux, a Democratic former state representative and a longtime supporter, said Barrow won again and again by hewing to political pragmatism rather than party orthodoxy.
“He remembers what he’s going to have to say at a town hall meeting on Saturday when he’s casting a vote in Washington on Wednesday,” Bordeaux said.
In an interview, Barrow said he votes with his constituents rather than his party.
He voted against the health care overhaul, but still managed to survive a Democratic primary challenge last year from a black opponent in a district that is about 45 percent African-American. He is a formidable fundraiser, with many of his contributions flowing from fat Atlanta wallets outside his district.
Barrow hails from Georgia political aristocracy: His father was a lawyer and judge who helped integrate the University of Georgia. His mother was a matriarch in the Democratic politics of Barrow County, the northeastern Georgia county that bears his family’s name.
While supporters praise his willingness to cross the aisle, critics paint him as a contortionist who will say just about anything to get elected.
“I just can’t trust someone like that,” said Don Hodges, who owns a construction company in Savannah. “He’ll do what he needs to do to survive, so you can’t say what he really believes.”
At a town hall meeting in Savannah earlier this year, Barrow may have summed up his philosophy, answering a question about ways to reduce the deficit and control government spending.
“I am an ‘all of the above’ kind of guy,” Barrow said. “If it’s a good idea, an idea that will work, then I am for it.”