The battle for the Sun Belt

Opportunity and necessity alike are pushing Democrats to focus more intently on gaining ground across the Su...

Posted: Nov 2, 2018 5:07 PM
Updated: Nov 2, 2018 5:08 PM

Opportunity and necessity alike are pushing Democrats to focus more intently on gaining ground across the Sun Belt in next week's election, from Florida and Georgia in the Southeast to Nevada and Arizona in the Southwest.

The opportunity comes from changing demographics: with their young, diverse populations and in most cases, growing ranks of white-collar, information-age workers clustered into busting metropolitan areas, the Sun Belt states increasingly embody the modern Democratic electoral coalition.

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The necessity is driven by the prospects of losses for Democrats not only next week, but in years ahead in states across the nation's interior. In an era when older, blue-collar, rural and culturally conservative white voters are moving more toward the Republican Party under Donald Trump, Democrats are facing increasing challenges in Heartland and Rust Belt states dominated by exactly those kinds of voters. That long-term challenge is evident this year in the difficulty Democrats are facing holding Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and to a slightly lesser extent, Montana and West Virginia.

To offset what could be future Republican gains in the Heartland at every level -- the House, the Senate and the Electoral College -- Democrats in the coming years will need greater inroads in states across the Sun Belt. These include Florida, North Carolina and Georgia in the Southeast, as well as Arizona, Nevada and eventually Texas in the Southwest. (Two other Southwestern states, Colorado and New Mexico, after performing as swing states earlier this century, now lean more reliably toward the Democrats. Virginia in the Southeast, has followed the same trajectory.)

Despite favorable demography, Democrats have established only a very limited beachhead in these six key Sun Belt battlegrounds. In many of these states, the Democratic Party has been virtually moribund: it hasn't won a statewide office in Texas since 1994 or in Arizona since 2008. In Arizona, Bill Clinton in 1996 is the only Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since 1948. In 2016, Trump carried all of these states except Nevada. The only governorship among them that Democrats now hold is in North Carolina, and they control just two of their dozen Senate seats (Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Bill Nelson, who's locked in a tight battle for reelection with outgoing Gov. Rick Scott in Florida.) Democrats haven't elected a US Senator in Arizona for 30 years.

Sun Belt hope for Democrats

But this year, Democrats are pulsing with vastly more energy across the Sun Belt states, though they still face big structural barriers in all of them.

In the Southeast, the emergence of the party's first African-American gubernatorial nominees in Georgia (Stacey Abrams) and Florida (Andrew Gillum) has electrified local activists. Both are locked in tight races, with Gillum given slightly better odds. Democrats also have a strong chance to win the governorship in Nevada, though their candidates trail badly in Arizona and Texas. (Democrats are also favored to win the governorships in Colorado and New Mexico, the two Southwestern states that already lean more toward them.)

The best two Democratic opportunities to pick up a Republican-held Senate seat are in the Southwest: Nevada, where Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen is challenging Dean Heller, and Arizona, where Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is battling Republican Rep. Martha McSally. CNN polls released Wednesday showed both Democrats holding a narrow advantage. In Texas, Democrat Rep. Beto O'Rourke has galvanized Democrats nationwide, and raised unprecedented sums of money, while launching a vigorous challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz. O'Rourke still faces a tough climb to beat Cruz, but many Democrats believe his dynamic grassroots campaigning has provided the party a pathway toward restoring its competitiveness in the state.

New majorities

All of these states are politically defined by a stark racial divergence between their diverse youth populations and predominantly white seniors -- what I've called the brown and the gray. Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey has projected that by 2020, minorities will constitute a clear majority of the under-30 population in Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, and more than two-fifths of that population in North Carolina. At the same time, the population aged 65 to 69 in each of these states (save for Texas) will remain roughly two-thirds white by then. And even in Texas, whites will represent about three-fifths.

The political challenge this creates for Democrats is starkly apparent in Arizona. Especially in mid-term elections like this year, young people and minorities here vote at vastly lower rates than older and white people. While over 46% of eligible Arizona whites turned out in 2014, only one-third of African-Americans and slightly less than one-third of Hispanics did so, according to Census Bureau figures. The generational contrast was even more dramatic: While more than three-in-five eligible voters 65 and older voted in Arizona in 2014, according to the Census Bureau, less than one-in-five of those younger than 35 did so, an anemic figure. Chuck Coughlin, a Phoenix-based Republican consultant says it's likely that voters older than 50 will comprise at least 55% of the electorate next week. "We keep talking about a younger group -- and it will happen -- but as most things happen in politics, it's incremental," he says.

Difficulty getting out the Latino vote

Latino groups in Arizona are mounting a major effort to accelerate that change. Eduardo Sainz, the Arizona director for Mi Familia Vota, says a coalition of Latino groups have registered 200,000 new voters in the state this year. But increasing their turnout remains a grudging process. While Trump has stirred anger among Latinos, Sainz says, it isn't always easy to convince irregular voters that they can express their distaste for him by voting for Democrats in Congressional elections this year.

"To be honest, it's hard to make sure the community members are participating when [we're] not having Donald Trump on the ballot," he says. It doesn't help, he notes, that campaigns have usually focused their own spending on groups considered more likely to show up.

Still, Sainz is confident that the sheer growth in the Latino population will steadily translate into more influence, even if turnout increases only slowly.

"This is going to be the last election that politicians can take us for granted," he says. "I believe that in the future politicians are not going to have a choice to take us for granted because the demographics in Arizona for Latinos are growing tremendously."

And Democrats can find reason for optimism in early voting returns that show youth turnout enormously increasing across the Sun Belt states compared to 2014. On the other hand, that growth is measured against a very low base in 2014 turnout, which has caused some experts to question whether or how much young people will increase their actual share of the vote relative to older voters, who are also casting ballots in large numbers so far.

In any case, increasing turnout among non-white voters, especially younger ones, is only half of the equation for Democrats in all of the Sun Belt states they are hoping to flip. The other is replicating the gains that Democrats in other regions have made with college-educated whites, especially women. In many states along the coasts, Democrats now win about half or more of those college-educated white voters. But those voters are generally more conservative across the Sun Belt: in 2016, Hillary Clinton won less than one-third of college educated whites in Georgia and Texas, only slightly more than one-third in Florida, just under two-fifths in North Carolina and slightly more than two-fifths in Nevada and Arizona. Only in the latter two states did she approach her national share of 45%, according to exit polls.

This year, unease with Trump among these voters, especially women, have positioned Democrats for gains with them. Abrams and O'Rourke face the toughest roads: though each have notched gains compared to earlier Democrats, most polls show him stuck below 40% with them, and Abrams generally even lower (though she is campaigning heavily in the Atlanta suburbs). But several surveys have shown Gillum in Florida running even or leading among college-educated whites. And the CNN polls this week showed both Rosen and Sinema holding narrow leads among those voters and winning about half of them.

'I haven't moved in my beliefs; the party has moved'

Sue Gerard, a former GOP state legislator in Arizona, is one of the college-educated white voters tilting away from the party in the Trump era. Gerard counts conservative icon Barry Goldwater as one of her heroes. Now she's heading a Republicans for Sinema group.

"It's not as big a step now because so many of my friends and colleagues that were Republicans are no longer Republicans because of what's been happening in the party," Gerard says. "My attitude is I haven't moved in my beliefs, the party has moved, so I'm thinking there will still be a day when moderate Republicans will not be a dirty word or an endangered species."

In all of the Sun Belt states, public polls show Republicans in the key races holding crushing leads among Trump's best constituency: white voters without a college degree. To overcome that, Democrats will need to both turn out more minority and young voters than they have in the past, and run better among college-educated whites in the region. On both fronts, says Coughlin, the GOP consultant, Democrats are likely to post at least some improvement. "I think they will," he says. "Is it enough to flip? Is it enough to turn it?"

The answer to that question in Arizona and other Sun Belt states will likely grow increasingly pressing for Democrats in years ahead as the demographic and geographic resorting of American politics proceeds.

Given the GOP's strength among older and blue-collar whites -- Trump in 2016 carried three-fifths of whites older than 45 and two-thirds of whites of all ages without a college degree -- Democrats are likely to face growing pressure across older, whiter, heavily Christian interior states. They received a preview of that challenge in 2016 when Trump swept Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, while coming close to swiping Minnesota.

This year, Democrats have stabilized their position in all six of those states. Democratic Senate incumbents are seeking reelection in each of them except Iowa and all of them are solid favorites to win next week. Democrats are also favored to win the governorships in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota and are locked in toss up races in the other three states.

Yet even with that recovery in the industrial Midwest, next week could dramatize the long-term threat to Democrats across these older interior states. The party is still at high risk of losing Senate seats in five other Heartland states. The greatest danger confronts Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. Joe Donnelly in Indiana leads in the latest public polls but trailed in surveys earlier in October. Though the polls send somewhat conflicting signals, Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana appear better positioned to survive.

Arizona and Nevada offer Democrats their best opportunity this year to counter those possible Senate losses in the Heartland. Gains across the Sun Belt could be even more important for the party's presidential ticket in 2020 when all signs suggest Trump will remain a formidable competitor for the big Rust Belt battlegrounds generally tilting back toward the Democrats this year. This year's big marquee races across the Sun Belt-the governor's contests in Florida and Georgia along with the Senate races in Nevada, Arizona and Texas -- will offer important clues about whether these states are moving toward the Democrats, or remain leaning toward the GOP, as attention turns from the midterm toward the epic presidential showdown of 2020.

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