- Partisan Change in Southern State Legislatures, 1953–2013
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You don’t have to be a historian, a political scientist, or even a particularly astute political observer to know that the South has moved from one-party Democratic control to a competitive and increasingly Republican region.1 Although this basic storyline is well known by folks on both sides of the Mason–Dixon Line, the picture becomes a good deal muddier from there. There is a healthy debate about how quickly this partisan shift occurred, why it occurred, the extent to which it has “trickled down” to lower offices, the policy implications of partisan changes, and of course, what the future holds for the region’s politics. Although we can’t answer all of these questions in a single essay, we do want to tackle a few of them in the context of one important, but understudied political institution: the state legislature. State legislators are vitally important political actors who have tremendous power over the lives of their constituents. In addition, partisan change in state legislatures can provide some important clues to help us better understand the past and future of partisan politics in the American South.
Partisan Change and the Case for Studying State Legislatures
The partisan transformation in the South coincided with, and was certainly influenced by, the modern Civil Rights Movement and the substantial increase in African American political participation following the 1965 Voting Rights Act.2 Likewise, landmark Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s affirming “one person, one vote” helped shift the power in state legislatures away from rural areas toward urban and suburban locales.3 The rise of the middle class, substantial in-migration from other regions, the increase in partisan independents, and the transformation of an agricultural economy to manufacturing and service-based industries also drove political changes in the region.4 Lastly, redistricting battles and the formation of majority-minority districts in the South largely benefited black Democrats and Republicans at the expense of white Democrats reliant on biracial coalitions to win electoral majorities.
Southern partisan realignment—as related to partisan alignment, which is defined as “a dramatic change in the partisan expressions of constituencies and communities”5—did not take place in a single “critical election” but instead occurred gradually over the last half-century.6 In fact, many treatments of partisan change in the South follow V. O. Key’s notion of a “secular realignment” (also known as “creeping realignment”) to suggest that realignments occur slowly, and are not necessarily punctuated by large changes coinciding with a single election. Within the secular realignment tradition, evidence suggesting that this slow partisan shift “trickles down” from higher offices to lower offices is compelling. The logic of this trickle-down realignment suggests that voters first shift their partisan loyalties when voting for president. When casting ballots for lower offices, voters generally [End Page 76] know less about the issues and candidates and thus rely more heavily on partisan cues. For this reason it may take decades for a voter to shift her partisan loyalties for the lowest, least salient offices.7
In most southern states, the slow transition of whites away from the Democratic Party began at the presidential level, as voters cast ballots for World War II hero General Dwight Eisenhower. Even when the region had very few Republicans, Peripheral South states Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida supported Eisenhower in 1952. Four years later, Texas and the Deep South state of Louisiana joined Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas to support...