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Landrieu's Loss Flips Lingering Holdout Of Democrats' 'Solid South'


Now, these new Justice Department guidelines are a reminder of the power the president's administration still has. President Obama can direct the federal bureaucracy. He can set the terms of national debate - actually passing legislation, that's going to be a little harder. Republicans who captured the Senate last month made their majority even larger over the weekend.

The GOP will hold 54 seats after Democrat Mary Landrieu's defeat on Saturday in Louisiana. And now there will be no Democrats representing the South, from the Carolinas through Texas with the exception of Florida. We'll talk about that and what it means for American politics with Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays. Cokie, good morning.


GREENE: And also NPR's Debbie Elliott, who covers the American South. Debbie, good morning to you


GREENE: Let me start with you, Deb. Mary Landrieu did not just lose this runoff, she lost badly. You have been in the state, I mean, how much of this was about opposition to President Obama?

ELLIOTT: I think that's what it was all about. You know, Congressman Cassidy - Bill Cassidy from Baton Rouge - won this election by 12 percentage points. That's a pretty big margin. And his sole campaign theme was if you like President Obama and his policies, then vote for Mary Landrieu, and if you don't, vote for me.

And it's a message that apparently works so well he didn't even feel the need to come and campaign in the state the week before Saturday's runoff. He was not around. He, in essence, just let the clock run out in the fourth quarter, you could say.

I was struck by a photograph that a journalism professor sent me from Lafayette on Election Day and it was a scene of a busy street corner. And it was covered with campaign signs. They read I'm with Mary on one side, fire Landrieu on the other side. Cassidy's name was nowhere in sight.

GREENE: Wow, well, that tells you something. Cokie, I - you know, you've been watching this play out in the state of Louisiana. But you have told us that there was the defeat of a Congressman John Barrow in Georgia that might be much more significant in terms of the Democratic Party in the American South right now. Why do you say that?

ROBERTS: Because he didn't do anything wrong. He didn't tick his voters off. He was able to separate himself on many occasions from President Obama and he lost just because he's a Democrat. And that is a definition of a wave. And my question now is whether he's the last. Will there ever be another white Democrat elected from the South? And, you know, David, this is so odd to me because, of course, when I was growing up it was just the opposite. The whites were Democrats, the blacks were Republicans and it was still the party of Lincoln.

You know, a little history here - when Abraham Lincoln told the country in September of 1862 that he was going to issue an executive order freeing all the slaves in the states in rebellion by January 1, lame-duck Congress came into session. The Democrats introduced a resolution that said that this was an affront to the Constitution. Then there was a party-line vote with all the Democrats voting against the emancipation proclamation. And so when blacks got the vote they were Republicans. And Democrats started chipping off bits of the black vote with Franklin Roosevelt.

But, of course, the big change came with the civil rights revolution in the '60s and when Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said that the signing of the civil rights bill would ruin it for the Democratic Party in the South for a generation. Well, it's taken a generation and now not only are you seeing this in the U.S. Senate, you're seeing it in the state legislatures. I went once to a southern Republican state legislature convention which could've met in a phone booth. And now they are the majority in most of the states in the South.

GREENE: Well, as we're looking at these big changes in the political landscape in the South, I mean - Deb, let me ask you, you're living there. What is your answer to the question about whether a white Southerner is likely to vote Democratic anytime soon?

ELLIOTT: Well, certainly there are always going to be white Southerners who vote Democratic, but they are going to be in the minority and probably for another generation to come. You know, conservative and moderate Democrats started leaving the party, as Cokie said, starting in the '60s and that decline has now, you know, come full circle.

And that just makes it harder for the Democratic Party to put together the kind of winning coalition that they have traditionally, which, in the deep South states I cover, has been you get a majority of African-American votes and then you get about 30 percent of the white vote and that can get you into office. I think that's going to be harder and harder to come by. But I also think there's Tea Party influence at play here. You know, voters look at government differently.

There was this long tradition in the South where you would send your lawmakers to Washington to stay, to earn seniority, to get clout, to bring the bacon home. And voters seem to be sending a message now that that's not a priority anymore in either party. Just look at - not Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, but next-door in Mississippi, where Republican Thad Cochran - who's been there for years - he's about to enter a seventh term. He's in line to be the Senate appropriations chair and he barely survived a primary challenge from the right.

GREENE: Cokie, let me finish with you really briefly. You cited this executive action on the emancipation proclamation as something that really sealed African-Americans into the Republican party for decades. Do you see potential similarities with President Obama's immigration initiative?

ROBERTS: Well, Democrats sure hope so and unlike African-Americans who have stayed at about 12 percent of the population, Hispanics, of course, are a growing proportion of the population. And when you talk about putting together those coalitions that can elect Democrats, they're a key part of it, even in the South.

GREENE: All right, we'll have to stop there. Cokie Roberts - she joins us most Mondays, and NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you both.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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