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The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

The Inevitable Purpling of the South

An election in Georgia may result in the first woman of color becoming governor in the US. Of any state. Ever.

That woman’s name is Stacey Abrams, a Yale-educated Democrat who hails from humble beginnings, having paid her way through college, and currently serves as Minority Leader of the Georgia House. Abrams faces Brian Kemp, a Trump-endorsed grassroots Republican who currently serves as Georgia’s Secretary of State and is aiming to capitalize on popular disillusionment with the Washington establishment. Kemp has promised to be tough on immigration and protect gun rights at all costs, while Abrams has focused on protecting immigrants and improving education in the state. In short, the two candidates could not be more different.

Though one might assume that the Republican would have the lead in Georgia, a historically red stronghold, the race is surprisingly tight. The two candidates are incredibly polarizing, and they represent differences in culture, race, and age that are becoming more and more pronounced and contentious within the state. With these demographic changes, political shifts have begun to arise not only in Georgia, but in all of the South. The region has recently become more purple than it’s been in decades, which will have a major effect on national political identities moving forward, shifting how Republicans and Democrats view both themselves and each other.

While Republicans undoubtedly still have a strong advantage in the South, the past few election cycles have produced strong and highly publicized southern Democratic candidates. Take Democrat Doug Jones, who won an Alabama Senate seat in a special election in 2017, greatly disrupting the history of staunch Republicanism in the state. Or look to Beto O’Rourke, the current Democratic candidate who is neck-and-neck with Ted Cruz, a virtual celebrity among Republicans. This is especially significant because their Senate race is taking place in Texas, where there hasn’t been a Democratic Senator for 25 years. Apart from individual candidates, state chambers are changing hands as well, as seen in the massive gains made by Democrats in 2016 in the Virginia General Assembly.

The evidence of this slow but significant purple shift in the South is undeniable; however, the factors and motivations behind it are often debated. Many political scientists point to demographic shifts in the South as the catalyst of changing political standpoints. One such shift comes in the form of immigrants beginning to flock to southern cities, especially hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville, in an attempt to capitalize on their burgeoning economies. As a result of this migration, the population is quickly becoming majority-minority; in Georgia, white people are projected to no longer comprise the majority of the population by 2025. Additionally, the average age in the South is younger than it has ever been before, with increased immigration contributing to a new generation of youth.

Republicans have historically capitalized on the South’s predominantly older, whiter population, but as this population is changing, so are its political leanings. Younger people and members of minority populations are more likely to support progressive candidates, something Democrats are beginning to take advantage of.

Many also attribute this political shift to the changing culture of the American south. Cities in the south are growing more quickly than cities anywhere else in the country, and people are moving en masse from rural areas to urban centers. With the growth of these cities, many within the country are migrating to the south, especially liberal New Englanders and the West Coasters. Urban centers are statistically more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than Republican, and the consolidation of non-Southern populations in these cities is causing major ideological shifts within the region.

Furthermore, views on many cultural and social issues are shifting as these younger, more diverse populations are beginning to gather in southern cities. For example, the South is becoming far less religious than it has usually been, causing issues for Republicans who have historically capitalized on conservative, Evangelist sentiments among rural southerners; a Pew Research Center Report shows that the percentage of non-religious people in the South increased from 13% to 20% between 2007 and 2015. This decreasing religiousness has caused shifts on many important issues, such as LGBTQ and women’s rights. As Southerners’ views on these key issues begin to shift with differing cultural norms, they are beginning to lean towards Democratic candidates.

While these major shiftsin terms of demographics, social and cultural norms, and population movementsare significant, the South as a whole still leans decidedly Republican and is far from purple. Republicans still hold 24 out of 26 state chambers in the traditional South, and each of these states, except for Virginia, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats are only making major strides as of late, as demonstrated by the increasing stream of candidates (i.e. Beto O’Rourke) finding success in pockets of the traditionally Republican South.

The question is not whether this purple wave in the South will happen or not; it’s already underway. Rather, at this point, the question is how Republicans will respond. Many point to voter suppression as a major reaction; this has become extremely significant in the Georgia gubernatorial election, as civil rights groups have sued Kemp for voter suppression. As current Secretary of State, Brian Kemp has access to voting roles, and he has removed over 53,000 voters from Georgia’s register, the majority of whom are African American. Coupled with Georgia’s intensely gerrymandered districts that favor Republican incumbents, many are losing their democratic voice as Republicans attempt to maintain control.

Alternatively, many predict that Republicans in the South will have to shift their own ideologies to the left, accompanying the cultural and social shifts occurring among their constituents. With the South having been a Republican stronghold for so long, major reverberations will undoubtedly be felt on the national political sphere.

Thus, if this socio-political shift in the South continues, its implications will, in time, have lasting effects on the politics of the entire country. The results of the midterm elections will be key because they could serve as the impetus to a major political, regional, and social realignment. Stacey Abrams is just one example of Democrats making strides in the South, just one demonstration of the competitiveness and purpling that is happening in Southern politics.

Photo: Barbara Jordan Forum 2012

About the Author

Matthew Bailey '21 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Matthew can be reached at matthew_bailey@brown.edu

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