The next Congress will feature more Southern Democrats, but there’s a catch: The region’s clout on Capitol Hill will actually be diminished.
With Democrats capturing control of the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections, the Republicans who overwhelmingly represent southern districts — and currently hold several key committee chairmanships — will shrink in both size and influence.
Democrats will have two challenges: Boosting the party’s lagging image in the South, and helping the region thrive as its lawmakers navigate the legislative process.
In the current Congress, 104 House Republicans, and 40 House Democrats, are from the South, a region stretching from Virginia to Texas. Southern Republicans currently preside over 12 of the 21 House committees, including some of the most powerful panels like Ways and Means, which sets tax policy, and Judiciary, which writes immigration laws.
Some of those 12 Republicans would not be returning to their positions next year even if the GOP had maintained its majority. A few planned to retire, while others would step down because of term limits. One lawmaker lost re-election.
The number of southern House Republicans expected to be sworn into the next Congress could be as low as 84, with the votes in some races still being counted.
Southern House Democrats will see their numbers grow to at least 50 — thanks to the election of nine new members from Virginia, Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Georgia — but only four are poised to be committee chairs: Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, Budget; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, Education and the Workforce; Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, Homeland Security; and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, Science, Space and Technology.
There is some talk of Democrats reviving “earmarks,” the practice of allowing lawmakers to direct spending to specific projects in their home states and districts. Republicans banned the practice in 2011 due to public outcries and some flagrant abuse. If earmarks get restored, it would make having senior southern Democrats at the negotiating table could be even more important.
Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party in South Carolina, said certain parochial needs depend on having a Democrat in Washington.
“Already, one of the things I’ve heard from moderates and Democrats is how great it is that we have a congressman again who believes that funding projects in Charleston matters,” Quirk-Garvan said, arguing that Democrats are willing to spend money on their constituents while Republicans are largely bound to the ideology of fiscal restraint.
Voters in Quirk-Garvan’s 1st Congressional District earlier this week elected Democrat Joe Cunningham, flipping a seat that’s been in Republican hands for nearly three decades.
Yarmuth, a white Democrat, told McClatchy he was at a loss for how Democrats can boost its southern clout, though he said Democrats in general needed to speak to voters with more “empathy.”
“We definitely have a problem,” he said.
“Southern Democrats” often still evokes the image of a white conservative, but the region’s Democrats are a diverse group. That makes it hard to promote agendas that can be sold easily.
“What might work in Florida and Texas might not work in South Carolina or Tennessee,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston and the co-author of a forthcoming book about the transformation of southern political identity.
Indeed, the midterms presented plenty of mixed messages.
Democrats Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas ran on decidedly progressive platforms for governor and senator, respectively, in overwhelmingly red states. O’Rourke came historically close to winning, and Gillum’s race is heading to a recount. Stacey Abrams, like Gillum a black progressive Democrat in the red state of Georgia, is also in a governor’s race that’s currently too close to call.
In South Carolina and Tennessee, Democrats James Smith and Phil Bredesen presented themselves as moderates and lost their respective races for governor and senator by wide margins. But South Carolina elected Cunningham, who made local coastal conservation the centerpiece of his campaign.
Many Democrats also consider African-Americans as an intensely loyal voting bloc, rather than as an important group within the larger southern base.
“African-Americans think of themselves as southern at as high as a rate as white folks,” Knotts said he has found in his studies.
There are currently more black southern Democrats than there are white southern Democrats, who live in more conservative districts where voters tend to elect Republicans.
In the House, there are now 19 black southern Democrats and 15 white southern Democrats. Next year, black southern Democrats will account for at least 22 members, while white southern Democrats will account for at least 20.
Even with their bigger numbers in the House of Representatives, southern Democrats might not be in as strong a position to make that case as the GOP.
House Republicans currently have three southerners serving in their party leadership in the roles of whip, the second-ranking leadership job, as well as chief deputy whip and GOP Conference vice-chairman.
House Democrats have only had one southerner in leadership since 2011: Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
Clyburn is the assistant Democratic leader and is currently running to retain his No. 3 rank as the majority whip in the new Congress — the job he held during the last House Democratic majority from 2007 to 2011.
Also the only African-American in House Democratic leadership, Clyburn as whip could help a wide cross-section of members figure out how they can vote on legislation that supports the party but doesn’t alienate constituents back home.
“Having him in that position is a good thing for some of those southern members that we do have, helping them navigate this process and do things that are good for their districts,” said Jaime Harrison, now a Democratic National Committee official and a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who held senior roles on Clyburn’s leadership staff.
Over the past 15 years, Clyburn has used his leadership clout to advocate for regional interests. An anti-poverty program implemented in several parts of the federal budget will help southern areas. He has helped expand access to broadband in rural southern communities. And he has secured increased funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of which are in southern states.
Still, as House Democrats scramble to position themselves to run for various leadership postings, still not knowing for sure whether Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will have the votes to be speaker, no southerner other than Clyburn has declared a candidacy.