Conservative Democrats switch to GOP across the Deep South

Share via

For Democrats, Ashley Bell was the kind of comer that a party builds a future on: A young African American lawyer, he served as president of the College Democrats of America, advised presidential candidate John Edwards and spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

But after his party’s midterm beat-down in November, Bell, a commissioner in northern Georgia’s Hall County, jumped ship. He joined the Republicans.

Bell, 30, said he had serious issues with the healthcare law and believed that conservative “blue dog” Democrats in Congress who shared his values had been bullied into voting for it.


Bell’s defection is one of dozens by state and local Democratic officials in the Deep South in recent months that underscore Republicans’ continued consolidation of power in the region — a process that started with presidential politics but increasingly affects government down to the level of dogcatcher.

“I think the midterms showed you really can’t be a conservative and be a member of the Democratic Party,” Bell said.

Since the midterm election, 24 state senators and representatives have made the switch in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Texas.

In some cases, the ramifications have been profound: In Louisiana, defecting Democrats gave Republicans a majority in the state House for the first time since Reconstruction; in Alabama, they delivered the GOP a House supermajority. Republicans have 65 votes to the Democrats’ 39, enough to pass constitutional amendments over Democratic opposition.

The trend continued through late January — when nine officials in Lamar County in northeastern Texas left the Democratic Party — and into last week, when Louisiana Atty. Gen. James D. “Buddy” Caldwell switched parties, leaving the GOP in control of every major state office in Baton Rouge.

Democrats may remain competitive in some parts of the South in 2012. The Democratic Party’s announcement last week that it will hold its national convention in Charlotte, N.C., may help President Obama’s chances in what has become a Southern swing state — and one that he narrowly won in 2008.


But peering farther South, he will face a sea of red that is increasingly deep: Republicans hold every Southern governor’s mansion except in North Carolina and Arkansas, and control most of the state legislative chambers.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the party-switching — in addition to big Republican legislative gains in the South in the November election — reflect an ongoing “top-down realignment” of the region’s white voters from old-school conservative Democrat to Republican.

Decades ago in the South, he said, “the issues that hurt the Democrats were issues first introduced in national politics.” In other words, “the increased liberalization of the Democratic Party.”

Republican presidential candidates made inroads in the South beginning in 1964 with Barry Goldwater, who won a number of Southern states because he opposed the Civil Rights Act. Many local offices, however, remained in Democratic hands, even if the officeholders were conservative and white.

Over time, traditional Democratic support has eroded at the local level, a decline aided by the Internet and 24-hour cable news, which have allowed Republicans to “more easily connect local politics with what’s happening nationally,” said David Avella, president of GOPAC, a Republican group that supports state and local politicians.

Many of the defectors have echoed Bell’s assertion that Democrats have become too liberal.


“The truth is that this change of party is in line with thousands of everyday people who simply feel more comfortable with most of what the Republican Party represents locally and nationally,” Caldwell said in a statement.

Caldwell is up for reelection as Louisiana’s attorney general this year. But switching sides isn’t always a winning move: Former U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama moved to the GOP in 2009, and then lost in a Republican primary.

The party-switchers also leave behind hurt feelings among stalwart Democrats. Jim Taflinger, head of the Hall County Democratic Party in Georgia, said it was sad that a promising figure like Bell would walk away from an “incredible resume” as a Democrat.

“You know, there’s been a lot of party-switching going on,” Taflinger said. “I think it’s not so much policy driven ... so much as environment driven. The business environment is such that you have to be careful up here calling yourself a Democrat — there’s a stigma to it.”

In his part of the world, Taflinger said, a big part of his job is to “let people know it’s OK to be Democrats again.”