^ sparking the change that threatens the GOP South : Michelle Nunn of Georgia

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Recent polls of US Senate races in Georgia and Kentucky show that the Democrats stand a fair chance of picking up both seats. In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell polls a mere 1 point ahead of his challenger, Alson Lundergan Grimes. In Georgia, Michelle Nunn no polls ahead — by 3 to 6 points — of each of her two possible Republican rivals for the open seat left by retiring Saxby Chambliss.

This is significant change. Granted that it’s only two Southern states and that in two others — Louisiana and North Carolina — Democratic incumbents poll behind or barely ahead of Republican challengers; yet another Southern Democratic incumbent, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, thought to be in trouble, now looks comfortably ahead of his Republican opponent.

Six, ten, twelve years ago, these races would not have been close. Each of the 5 states mentioned were then trending strongly to the GOP, and as recently as the 2012 Presidential election, three of them (LA, KY, AR) continued to be so. But not now. Anecdotal evidence suggests, too, that throughout the South the GOP message is wearing out its welcome.

So what is going on, as I see it ? Many factors :

1.the old Southern voters of 1968 – 2012 are aging, and the South’s younger voters — growing in number — have a very different view of things. In the South, absolutes have tended to rule. Good versus bad has been the region’s norm for a long long time, be it racism, religious fundamentalism, or absolutism on gun rights. This is the picture we from outside the South have of the region : and this picture has carried the day in Southern politics ever since the Civil rights revolution of the early 1960s.

But that was then. Today’s Southern voters have grown up in the internet era, friends to technology, confronted with all kinds of activities and styles utterly subversive of the steely absolutes that have riled Southern politics. as always, the people are ahead of the politicians. Southern people have made their peace with gay family members, neighbors, friends. Transgender kids are accommodated in the South’s schools. Race is barely a factor at all. And religion, strong as ever in this region, has begun to change its message from damnation to inclusion.

So far this is happening at street level. No Southern politician — certainly no Southern Republican — would dare to be the public voice of the South’s growing diversity. But the voters know the difference. For 40 years, the Democratic party in the South was the party of Blacks (and a few fighting progressives, always present in the South even in the worst of seasons). No longer. This year Democratic candidates are gaining White voters in numbers not often seen in our lifetime. Women voters especially are moving.

This trend can only grow. If the South’s GOP doesn’t change its tune, and fast, it will find itself losing races more often than not. And if Hillary Clinton runs for President in 2016, watch out.

2.the South is no longer uniformly Black or Caucasian and of multi-generation American birth.

Hispanic people are moving up from Florida into Georgia, Alabama, even South Carolina — a trend first noted as long ago as 2004. They’re a presence in Mississippi and Louisiana. They’re at least 40 % of Texas population. Their numbers can only increase. And they are, on balance, heavily Democratic in their voting choice.

3.City voters almost everywhere in America are democratic, usually by overwhelming margins. it’s true of the South, too. In the technology innovation era that we now inhabit, the young techies live in center city. they live there, shop there, socialize there, work there. Southern cities can no more opt out of this social dynamic than they can rewind the clock. And these voters, too, overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

In Georgia, the votes of greater Atlanta, Athens University of Georgia), Savannah, and Augusta, added to Hispanic votes in south Georgia and black votes in the Cotton belt look ready to claim a majority, and not only in the senate race.

In North Carolina, serious overreach by a radical Republican legislature may well spell doom for the state’s GOP candidate for US Senate and almost certainly portends a Democratic victory in the state in 2016.

In Mississippi, in 2012, Barack Obama lost the state by only 10 points — much less than he lost all surrounding states by. Yes, Mississippi voters are 37% Black. But Obama got 45%. He won 15% of the White vote in the South’s most racially polarized state. White Democrats are running for US Senate and for Congress, in numbers not seen in Mississippi in two decades. Will they win ? probably not. But no longer can the GOP take Mississippi for granted.

In Arkansas, the Clintons remain hugely popular, and their popularity, plus the prospect of Hillary Clinton as President, seems to have yanked the state back, from assured 20 to 30 point GOP victories, toward 50-50 status. Tom Cotton, the GOP Congressman running against senator Pryor, must wonder what’s happening. Only four years ago, Arkansas voters defeated a Democratic Senate incumbent by 20 points. Now Cotton finds Pryor polling ahead by 6 to 10 points.

What’s happening is that the South is changing — rapidly, decisively. And as the current GOP has wedded itself and its prospects lock stock and barrel to the South, the change portends disaster, even irrelevance for the GOP, or, at least, for what it has been.

Frankly, I couldn’t be gladder. The GOP has spent 40 years prolonging the life of long discredited, socially destructive, economically corrupt ways — the boot-heel patriotism, the guns in your face, the clinging to lost wars, the taste for dining and shunning, the glorification of rural hardscrabble — ways which we in the 1960s had every right to think we had put to rest. And which would have been put aside had not the GOP given the old ways a new home and a temporary legitimacy they never deserved.

Now it looks ready to be over, this time for real, because the change is coming from Southerners themselves rather than by outside imposition.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere