Why red state Democrats keep getting left behind

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Will putting the Christ back in Christmas help embattled Democrats? That’s a question circulating in the wake of Sen. Mark Pryor’s (D-Ark.) latest campaign ad, which begins: “I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in God, and I believe in His word.” The ad is a tender, if blunt, assertion that faith should trump partisanship. It defines Pryor in explicitly religious terms, but why is he doing it, and what does he hope to accomplish?

Pryor is facing the toughest election campaign of his life in a state that is trending red, in a year with turnout patterns likely to favor Republicans. Though Pryor remains personally well liked in Arkansas and holds a 2-to-1 fundraising edge, he’s currently trailing his opponent by seven points according to a recent poll from a conservative group.

Both Pryor and his Republican colleague in the Senate, John Boozman, took hits in the polls during the government shutdown, but Arkansas voters placed most of the blame on President Obama and Congressional Democrats. In addition, most voters in the state are hostile to health care reform. As a result, Pryor’s approval ratings have been fluctuating between the 30s and 40s, plummeting ten points beneath former Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s (D) lowest point before her overwhelming defeat in 2010.

Arkansas is whiter, poorer, less educated, and far more religious than America as a whole – dominated by Southern Baptists and other Evangelical denominations. Polls show exactly what you would expect from a state brimming with social and religious conservatives. Voters are against stricter gun control, marriage equality, and abortion. With constituents like these, it’s no wonder Pryor almost never sides with his party in key votes, regardless of his personal convictions.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe’s (D) stratospheric popularity might, at first glace, appear to suggest a viable strategy for a Democrat looking to win statewide. But Beebe’s situation is unique. The keys to his success – avoiding Washington, avoiding controversial issues, and avoiding the worst impacts of the Great Recession – aren’t things Pryor can replicate. So Beebe can continue to defy the rightward shift in his state’s political center of gravity, while Pryor – like Lincoln before him – remains utterly at the mercy of it.

If Arkansas Republicans can’t retake Pryor’s seat in these conditions, they ought to quit politics and take up apple picking: The only place they’ll find lower hanging fruit.

So what’s a Democratic Senator facing long odds in a deeply religious state to do? Exactly what Pryor does in his new ad: Appeal to religious voters and position himself as an independent.

To the senator’s credit, his sentiments in the ad appear genuine. By all accounts, Pryor is a deeply religious man. And while people may strongly disagree with his theological convictions and their application in a political context, Pryor at least deserves respect for his sincerity.

The question at hand isn’t whether voters in Arkansas are motivated by religion, or even whether they’ll be moved by this ad in particular. The question is whether there are enough religious voters willing to set aside their preference for a conservative Republican to send a devoutly religious Democrat back to Washington. Don’t count on it.

What’s happening in Arkansas is symptomatic of the larger realignment in American politics, underway since the mid-20th century. The New Left movements of the 1960s helped provoke a set of New Right movements that took off in the 1970s, aided by the rise of political consultants specializing in direct mail marketing. American politics, which had been aligned along regional and ethnic lines during the New Deal era, began to realign along an ideological axis. Religion and religiosity have been a big part of that story. 

Beginning in the 1970s, religious conservatives mounted a decades-long campaign to seize control of the Republican Party and the levers of American government. Their efforts gave rise to the Moral Majority in the 1980s, the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, values voters in the 2000s, and a host of other influential organizations and movements too numerous to mention here.

Nationally, religious voters are now declining in numbers and influence due to demographic and generational change. But thanks to ideological polarization – which also has geographic dimensions – the influence of religious voters appears to be holding steady and potentially rising in the Deep South and in the Great Plains. These voters show no signs of abandoning the Republican Party.

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, where he brings clients in politics, advocacy, and consulting the most cutting edge ideas and tools from political psychology. Follow the firm on Facebook and Twitter.


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