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Democrats Play Offense in the South in Hopes of Turning Some Red States Blue

September 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Charlotte, N.C., will play host to the 2012 Democratic Convention. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and University of North Carolina's Kareem Crayton about the changing political landscape of North Carolina and how that will affect both the Democratic and Republican parties come Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Democrats gather in this Southern city on the eve of the convention, we look at the changing political landscape of the South with Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Kareem Crayton. He’s a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, and he studies race in politics.

And we thank you both for being with us.

SEN. KAY HAGAN, D-N.C.: Thank you, Judy.

KAREEM CRAYTON, University of North Carolina: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator Hagan, we just heard that report from Andy Kohut about sliding support among much of the electorate for the president, especially among white voters. Here in the South, it seems Democrats are particularly having a tough time. Why is that?

SEN. KAY HAGAN: Well, I think there are several things.

You go back to 2008, and in North Carolina we had close to 4.5 million people vote. And then, in 2010, we only had a little over three million vote. So, 1.5 million people stayed home.

And I think the landscape changed in North Carolina during that period of time. And I think a lot of people are wondering, well, what’s happened? But when I look at what’s happened in Congress, with the frustration, with the inability to get things done, I think the public has forgotten that when Mitch McConnell stands up on the Senate floor and says, you know, I don’t want to move legislation forward, I want this president to be a one-term president, it’s hard for President Obama to get his policies put forward.

I mean, the last week we were in session, we couldn’t even get on a motion to proceed to a cyber-security bill because of the obstruction going on. And I think that message hasn’t resonated with the public.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Clayton, if what the senator says is correct and people are just so — so disheartened about Washington, what about the South in particular is affected by this? Is the South out of reach for a Democrat like Barack Obama this time around?

KAREEM CRAYTON: It’s not out of reach, but he’s definitely sailing into headwinds.

In addition to what Senator Hagan said, there are, of course, these long-term trends that certainly make it more difficult for Democrats to compete, having to do in part with the enfranchisement of African-Americans since 1965.

Once you get a large number of African-Americans voting, supporting the Democratic Party, you get a distancing among some white voters in the South from the Democratic platform, in part, some would say, because the Democratic platform went farther away from where they were, but sometimes also because they weren’t all that comfortable voting for issues having to do with African-American-favored interests.

And so those are things that I think Democrats in the South running have to work against, putting coalitions together. North Carolina has been a place where that’s happened, but it is a hard sell, particularly in an economic climate where independent voters, many of them white, are in some ways dispirited and wondering what federal government is going to do to deal with jobs.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask, Senator Hagan, a colleague of yours, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, another big battleground state, was quoted as saying, “How can it be that in the party of Andrew Jackson, only 28 percent of white working males support the Democratic Party?”

Is that a long-term problem for the Democratic Party, not only in North Carolina, but throughout the South?

SEN. KAY HAGAN: I think we have seen that historically over probably the last 40 years.

But I do think that we have, with the convention in Charlotte, with the convention in North Carolina this week that people across North Carolina are proud of the fact that the Democratic Party chose to have a convention here in North Carolina.

We are the new South. We are a party with a huge tent. And we welcome everybody that you will see on the floor beginning tomorrow. And if you walk the streets in Charlotte today for the CarolinaFest, you have seen that over and over again with people of all races, all nationalities coming here to celebrate the feeling and the Southern hospitality that’s been extended to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kareem Crayton, as we said, one of the things you specialize in is looking at voting rights. We know from what’s been happening in the last several months of this year Republicans across the country in particular moving to move on voter — restricting voter access.

They talk about trying to limit fraud and eliminate fraud. The view from the Democratic Party is different. But my question is, if you take all that together, how much does that affect the Democratic Party’s ability to do what it needs to do in the South?

KAREEM CRAYTON: It is a serious assault on the work that Democrats do to win.

Democrats, in order to be successful — and, in many places, like North Carolina, they have been successful — have matched significant turnout among African-Americans and great turnout among independent to moderate white voters.

And it’s been done on a number of, you know, issues having to do with jobs, et cetera. How do the voting rules affect it?

Limited voting limits the ability of African-Americans to utilize Sunday voting. Voter I.D. rules in a lot of states have been adopted. That limits access to those who have driver’s licenses. Many poor, many older, many African-American voters don’t have it.

These are going to be things that drive down the ability of African-Americans to turn out. And in a tight race, those small numbers matter.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hagan, I want to follow up on that, because it seems to me that if you raise the question of voter suppression, as Democrats have, if you raised a question about redistricting, which is also carved-out districts which make it very difficult for any kind of racial mix to happen, I wonder what — how you see a path toward future Democratic growth, especially in a state that the president won by, what, a half-a-percentage point last time?

SEN. KAY HAGAN: Fourteen thousand votes.


SEN. KAY HAGAN: Well, I think two things.

I do think that what you’re seeing right now in North Carolina, with the Republican-controlled Senate and House, and in 2010, the House — the Senate went Republican for the first time since about 1880.

So, all of a sudden, you’re getting these suppression of the voting rolls. And there’s really — there’s no reason for it, other than to suppress the Democratic vote. And I think that that’s a huge problem.

As far as redistricting, you know, you can look at current sitting senators, and the redistricting map picked two houses from one county and put one woman in a — one strong Democratic woman in a strong Republican state district.

GWEN IFILL: So, what do you do about that?

SEN. KAY HAGAN: I think the courts are going to have to be able to solve that issue and look at to see if this is abiding under the Voting Rights Act.

And, if not, then certainly we can change that. And I think that it’s in the court system right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given the picture that the two of you have painted throughout this conversation, Kareem Crayton, what does this president need to do if he’s going to have a serious chance of winning in November across the South, not just in North Carolina?

KAREEM CRAYTON: Well, I think two things. And they probably are things that you have heard, I think, Ms. Cutter say in her interview. One is, obviously, he’s got to articulate a message that reignites people who were excited about him in 2008, that this isn’t a red or a blue America.

This isn’t also a black or white America, but there are issues that we are all are concerned about that we need to work together to build.

Second, I think — and this is the, you know, door-to-door talking to people idea that a lot of folks earlier in the panel were talking about — getting people mobilized, showing up and getting every potential vote out there, so utilizing what’s left of early voting to get people mobilized and making sure that on Election Day as few obstacles are in place as possible so that people can get ballots cast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Kareem Crayton and Sen. Kay Hagan, we thank you both.


GWEN IFILL: Thank you both very much.