Sabato's Crystal Ball

The House’s Endangered Species

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst, U.Va. Center for Politics July 28th, 2011

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As recently as the mid-20th century, white southern men from the Democratic Party dominated the Congress. There was Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who, respectively, ruled the House as speaker and the Senate as majority leader for much of the 1950s. And there were numerous Southern committee chairmen, including Howard W. Smith of Virginia, the House Rules Committee head who used his power to battle liberal legislation.

But the retirement Monday of U.S. Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR) brings into clearer focus a steady trend: Southern white Democratic men are an endangered species, at least in the House.

After the upcoming 2012 House elections, there will be 138 representatives from the 11 Southern states: Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. It seems very possible that of those representatives, only 10 or fewer will be white Democratic men come 2013.

Right now, there are 14 such Democrats in the House. Ross’s retirement means that a Republican could win the seat — the Crystal Ball currently rates his seat, AR-4, as “leans Republican.” Meanwhile, aggressive Republican redistricting in North Carolina could eliminate as many as four of the five white Democratic men from the Tar Heel State’s House delegation (two of the four Democrat-held seats “lean Republican” in our ratings, and two are “toss-ups”).

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas was drawn out of his district; he is running in a different district this year, but he faces a strong challenge from state Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is Hispanic. It is possible that U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee may be harmed by redistricting, but Cooper has proven very resourceful in the past and we have his seat rated as “likely Democratic” for now.

As for the Senate, only four of the 22 Southern senators are white Democratic men. Republicans overall control 16 of the 22 Southern Senate seats (there are two white Democratic women, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina).

The main reason for the dwindling numbers of white Southern men in the Democratic caucus is that Southern conservatives who in previous generations would have been Democrats are now Republicans. Also, the creation of “majority-minority” districts has made it easier for African-Americans and Hispanics to get elected to the House.

Our updated ratings for competitive House races are available here.