The 20 candidates who qualified for the July 30 and 31 CNN Democratic presidential debates include no Southerners, unless you count Texans Castro and O’Rourke or border state candidates Biden and Delaney, which I don’t.
Democrats are abandoning their most successful strategy for winning recent presidential elections: putting a Southerner on the ticket. From 1964 until 2008, every victorious Democratic presidential candidate had a Southern accent: Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Jimmy Carter in 1974, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000.
Arguably, it happened in 2016 when Hillary Clinton, with her deep Arkansas and Southern connections, won the popular vote.
The advantages of having a Southerner at the top of the tickets were not lost on the Republicans. As an adopted Texan, George H.W. Bush won in 1988 and his son, a real Southerner, won in 2000 and 2004.
For Democrats, having a progressive Southerner at the top of the ticket became a formula for a winning presidential campaign. What magic did a Southerner bring to the top of the ticket? It may be due to the experience Southern Democrats, especially governors, had in facilitating racial progress and, at the same time, developing partnerships with business interests to expand job and educational opportunities.
Southern Democrats, could be progressive enough for the national Democratic base without frightening moderate swing voters. They had demonstrated that they could govern by building coalitions rather than by turning away moderate and conservative interests.
Like Carter and Bill Clinton, North Carolina governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt fit this mold. Either of them could have been winning presidential candidates had the chips landed in a different way.
Why are these kinds of Southerners absent from the CNN debate stage now?
The main reason is that Democrats aren’t in top leadership spots in much of the South. No longer is there a big Democratic bench of accomplished and ambitious southern governors. North Carolina and Virginia are exceptions. Those states have Democratic governors. But our governor, Roy Cooper, is concentrating on a tough re-election campaign. Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam is burdened by his association with an old medical school yearbook photo of a blackface person and a KKK costume.
Former Virginia governors Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine fit the progressive moderate mold but aren’t running for president.
Before the Civil War, Southerners were active as presidential and vice presidential candidates. But after Andrew Johnson in 1864, until native Southerner Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, only one Southerner, losing Democratic vice presidential candidate Henry Gassaway Davis of West Virginia in 1904, was on a major party’s ticket.
Beginning with Wilson, if counting border states as part of the South, there was a Southerner as presidential or vice presidential candidate on the ticket of at least one of the major parties in every election except for 1920 and 1940.