House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (left) needs to flip only five seats in the 2024 election to claim the speaker’s gavel, but he’ll need the help of South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn (right), Congress’ most powerful Southern Democrat. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Democrats are entertaining a once-unlikely prospect: retaking the House majority by winning in the South.
The party is newly invigorated about its chance to pick up a seat each in Alabama, Louisiana and maybe even Georgia. After years of Republicans shutting them out of the congressional mapmaking process in nearly every Southern state, Democrats have turned to the courts to claw back what they saw as nefarious GOP gerrymandering.
It may be starting to pay off.
Democrats are hoping court rulings will allow for new lines that could redefine Black voter representation and give their party an echo of the kind of Southern footprint it had in decades past. It’s impossible to know how many seats could become competitive, but the party is hoping a handful may come into play and that new maps could even threaten the likes of Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and close McCarthy ally Garret Graves
(R-La.). Some of that process could even happen in time for the 2024 election — when House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries needs to flip only five seats to claim the speaker’s gavel.
It’s unlikely that major change will kick in before next November. But there’s a real chance that the Supreme Court’s bombshell ruling last month, which declined to whittle down the Voting Rights Act, could reverberate throughout the deep South in the next few election cycles.
Despite a redistricting brawl already underway in Alabama, Democrats think they have a real chance to grow their numbers. Other court battles in Texas, Florida and South Carolina could yield more gains.
“Who would have thought?” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), a senior Congressional Black Caucus member. “As took place in the ‘60s, when the South led with voting rights and civil rights … the South could save democracy again.”
Meeks is not alone in strategizing how to take seats in places like Alabama and Louisiana if Democrats win battles for new maps before November. Speaker Kevin McCarthy said this week he’s personally made calls to inquire about the fate of Alabama’s maps. And senior Democratic officials have begun early candidate recruitment in both states.
“I’ve been on the phone recruiting members. I have worked with states on their recruitment,” said South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, Congress’ most powerful Southern Democrat. Clyburn is making plans in his home state in case courts side with Democrats on a racial discrimination case centered on the district held by Mace, with the Supreme Court expected to hear that case this fall.
Republicans say Democrats are exaggerating their opportunity, given the steep political and legal hurdles. GOP lawmakers in many of those states are resisting changes to their maps, drawing out the timeline on new districts.
Take Alabama, where the conservative-led Supreme Court’s ruling led to a redraw of the state’s maps by 2024 to give more power to Black voters. Despite the strict order, state lawmakers have so far drawn maps that lean Republican and aren’t actually Black-majority districts — likely fueling even more court battles.
“Good luck,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) of Democrats’ plans to sue in pursuit of more seats in the South. The party’s brand, he said, is too toxic to win even if they secure more favorable maps. “Outside of the biggest cities in the South, I don’t think they have a snowball’s chance in heck of winning a seat.”
In addition to Alabama, Democrats hope that the courts will force two other closely watched states, Louisiana and Georgia, to redraw district lines in the coming months or years.
In Louisiana, a federal court will hold a high-stakes hearing in October, when a judge will decide whether the state legislature will need to draw new maps — though some believe legislators will try to punt any changes past the 2024 cycle. Graves, whose district could be in limbo if the court challenge succeeds, said Democrats were getting ahead of themselves while legislation was still pending in Alabama.
“I just think anything like that is pretty premature,” he said.
Georgia, which is facing challenges to parts of its House map, is expected to learn whether it needs to add another Black-majority district after a federal trial in September. Republicans believe there’s a near-zero chance it forces a new map for 2024 or that doing so would give Democrats a partisan edge in the delegation. Adding to their optimism: Democrats lack much legal recourse in nearby North Carolina, where Republican legislators are expected to redraw the state’s map in their favor after conservatives flipped the state Supreme Court.
It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats built a House majority made of centrist so-called Blue Dogs representing Southern districts. Before the GOP wave in 2010, Democrats had a commanding presence throughout the South, including three seats in Arkansas, two in Alabama, three in Mississippi and five in Tennessee. But demographic shifts and the rise of the Tea Party movement wiped nearly all of them out.
Democrats’ southern presence shifted from white, rural territory to majority-Black urban areas. The party won’t win back the turf it lost in 2010. But if they succeed in their various court fights Democrats might be able to eke out another seat or two in several states — with new maps that maximize the impact of Black voters.
“I have been trying to preach to the Democratic Party for years now that their way to … a more sustainable majority in Congress, and in particular in the House, was through the South,” said former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who noted the fast-growing Black populations in several states, including his own.
The Alabama case, he said, has “fueled some enthusiasm” for Democrats fighting for those extra seats: “Democrats have more and more opportunities to gain seats in the House, as long as they are smart about it and they don’t take votes for granted.”
Already, prominent Democrats are staking out lanes for a new Alabama seat they expect to be competitive.
Jones, who lost his bid for reelection in 2020, said he was just a “cheerleader” in the coming election cycles and was open to talking to any candidates interested in running. And although the state’s sole Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Terri Sewell, is expected to stay neutral in any primary for a new Black-majority seat, the Congressional Black Caucus is likely to take a close interest in any races that could add to its ranks.
Marina Jenkins, the head of Democrats’ redistricting arm, said she thought Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia’s litigation could be resolved in time for next year, but that Texas’ timeline was “sort of an unknown” while they waited on a trial date.
In Louisiana, Democrats are also privately strategizing about candidates, though many still fear Republicans will drag out the process beyond the 2024 election.
“I’m concerned that this is yet another delay tactic to push things back as far as you can to create an environment that is litigated after litigated after litigated,” said Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.), the state’s sole Democratic lawmaker. He added that he’s “very hopeful that now we’re on the right track to ultimately get this right.”
He does believe one outcome is “inevitable,” however — that “Louisiana will have two minority-majority seats.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.