In 2020, the decades of work by Stacey Abrams and other Black women leaders blossomed into a real victory for Democrats, with community-led organizing and voter registration campaigns leading to transformative victories at the local and state levels, Congress and all the way up to the White House. There are many lessons to be learned about how we can replicate their success across the country, particularly in the South, but the most critical one is that we should no longer ignore the potential of seemingly “deep red” states.
Georgia flipping from red to blue for the first time in decades gives us a model for how we can energize the Democratic base and show formerly disenfranchised citizens that their votes can actually make a difference. The New American Majority of Black, Brown, Indigenous, women of color, LGBTQ+, unmarried and young women are central to the demographic shift in this region, and activists have gained more momentum than ever in pushing back against a new barrage of suppression laws. We can and must apply our learnings to build the New South.
Consider a state like South Carolina. Pundits and strategists have written it off as a state that is unlikely to flip any time soon regardless of efforts by grassroots organizers to change the face of power there. But there are signs that that change may be coming sooner than we think.
In 2018, Joe Cunningham became the first Democrat to win in the First Congressional District in more than four decades. This victory inspired at least 3 Democratic women to challenge incumbent Congressional Republicans in 2020, building on the existing Democratic infrastructure. Jaime Harrison, the newly elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, ultimately lost his race for U.S. Senate in 2020, but he saw some gains and was polling at a dead-heat with Sen. Lindsey Graham for a considerable portion of the race. Most importantly, his campaign helped to build new Democratic infrastructure that previously didn’t exist in the state. These gains built on the enthusiasm in the presidential primary when Black South Carolinians essentially handpicked then Vice President Joe Biden as the 2020 Democratic nominee for president. With this momentum South Carolina could very well be the next Southern state to flip.
Demographics across the South are changing, and Democrats have an opportunity to capitalize on these shifts in our favor. Recent reports point to a “Reverse Migration,” or the ongoing return of Black Americans in large numbers to Southern states like Georgia where counties that were less than 20% Black two decades ago are now more than half Black. In South Carolina, much of its population growth has come in part from an influx of Black residents from other parts of the country. As more Black families head South in search of better opportunities, including affordable homes, reliable jobs and better schools for their children, they have undoubtedly altered the political make-up of the country.
And it’s not just Black voters. In fact, a broad coalition of voters of color including Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans also helped to transform Georgia’s landscape in 2020, and they could likely do the same in other Southern states. New data shows that in North Carolina, a battleground state previously won by Barack Obama, the number of Hispanic voters has grown at a rapid rate. In 2020, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of registered Hispanic voters compared to the 2016 election. Additionally, they represent 3 percent of all registered voters, which is significant in a state that is won on the margins.
Another key group helping to lead this political transformation is women, who are on the frontlines not just as organizers and voters, but also as candidates running for seats that have never been held by women of color or that haven't been held by Democrats in a generation. It’s why over the last few years my organization, Emerge, has launched state affiliates across the South including in Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia. We recognized early on that Democratic women were the key to ending the status quo in the region. By giving them the tools they need to run successful campaigns, we are empowering the women who know their communities, have built strong networks, understand the needs of their neighbors and possess the compassion that many current elected leaders lack. In the Palmetto State, Democratic women, many of them Emerge South Carolina alums, are breaking barriers and turning a new page for representation. Women like Columbia City Councilmember and now mayoral candidate Tameika Isaac Devine, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano, Charleston County School Board member Courtney Waters and more are connecting with their communities in between presidential election cycles, making change possible on an incremental but lasting basis.
Despite what many strategists and pundits have said in the past, the South is not a “lost cause.” It is the next frontier for Democratic power and it’s past time that we acknowledge it.
A’shanti F. Gholar is president of Emerge and the founder of the Brown Girls Guide to Politics.
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