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Mary Landrieu Loses Senate Seat In La. Runoff

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Democrats lost one last election yesterday in Louisiana. Rep. Bill Cassidy defeated incumbent Dem. Mary Landrieu in a runoff. It wasn't a surprise, but it was a particularly painful loss for the party. Landrieu was the last Democratic senator representing the Deep South. Andra Gillespie teaches political science at Emory University. Andra, welcome to the program.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you for having me.

RATH: So Landrieu's loss really marks the end of an era for Democrats in the Deep South. Can you give us the historical context there?

GILLESPIE: So Democrats had largely controlled the South, so if we go back as far as Reconstruction, Democrats had really dominated the South. And so we can look at classic political science work that talks about the South is a one-party Democratic region. And now we've just seen a shift from it being a one-party Democratic region to it being a one-party Republican region.

RATH: So Dem. Mary Landrieu had bucked the political trend against Democrats in the South for 18 years. What kept her from extending her streak this year?

GILLESPIE: Well, Mary Landrieu's loss is part of a larger story about secular realignment of white voters in the South from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. So when Mary Landrieu was first elected, you could still find a yellow dog Democrat - the type of Democrat who would vote so in national elections. But over time - and this process started in the mid- to late-1960s - whites in the South have started to change their party identification and also their voting behavior from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. So that shift has come full circle at this point. And it was exacerbated by the fact that this was a Republican wave year in terms of Senate elections, and so Senator Landrieu got caught up in that wave.

RATH: So have those white Democrats left the party for good?

GILLESPIE: I wouldn't say that they've necessarily left the party for good. They've left the party for now. And we can't quite predict when whites would actually come back to the party in large numbers. I think the lesson of this year's cycle - not just the loss of Mary Landrieu, but also Mark Pryor, Michelle Nunn and others - is that a Democratic coalition cannot rely solely on minority votes. What the Democrats are hoping in the future is the demographic changes in the South - so whether it's blacks coming back to the South from having lived in the North and the West or whether it's large numbers of Asian-Americans and the Latinos who would now be settling in the South, as opposed to the southwest or the West Coast - that that would actually help to create this large, multiracial coalition that would eventually outnumber whites in the South and that would actually help the Democratic Party. I think the lesson that we're learning from both last month's elections and from yesterday's elections is that whites have to be an important part of that Democratic coalition. And so the Democratic Party is going to have to find a way to reach out to white voters both nationally, but particularly in the South because these Democratic candidates we're losing, in part, because they were getting significantly less than 30 percent of the white vote. And that's just not sustainable, even with the hope that you can get large African-American, large Latino and large Asian-American populations to turn out and vote Democratic.

RATH: Andra Gillespie teaches political science at Emory University. Andra, thank you.

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