For decades after post-Civil War Reconstruction, the Lincoln Republicans were unwelcome in the South. Democratic loyalty intensified under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But the civil rights movement marked a split. "Dixiecrats" walked out of the 1948 nominating convention. In 1964, after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater's margins in a handful of Deep South states looked like FDR's three decades before.
From then until 2008, only Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas managed Democratic victories in states that once belonged to the Confederacy. Both are native Southerners. Bredesen, a New York native, said he was called a "carpetbagger" in his earliest campaigns.
Heading into November, the former Confederate states have just five Democrats in the Senate and only a handful of white Democrats in the House. The GOP has a majority in one or both legislative chambers in all of those states except Arkansas.
There are outliers.
Kentucky re-elected a Democratic governor last year after sending tea party favorite Rand Paul to the Senate. While Republican presidential nominees rolled in North Carolina, Democrats Jim Hunt and Mike Easley were successful governors. Then, after Obama won the state, Republicans in their next cycle took both legislative chambers. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue isn't seeking re-election and Democrats could lose half of their U.S. House seats, including two vacated by incumbents.
In Virginia, counties outside metropolitan Washington, D.C., and along the Atlantic coast helped elect a succession of Democratic governors and U.S. senator and swung to Obama in 2008. Then they went solidly for Republican Bob McDonnell in the 2009 governor's race.
The lesson, Nick and Elleithee said, is to know your audience.
Nick, the North Carolina Republican, said Democrats like Hunt and Easley talked effectively about education and maintained good relationships with the state's banking, technology and research sectors. Now, he said, Republicans are learning to talk about "kitchen-table issues" and economic security, rather than leaning on social issues.
Elleithee, the Democratic consultant on Virginia races, noted the influence of federal contracting in driving the economy of northern Virginia, where votes often settle the statewide result. Debates over spending and the deficit play differently than in other parts of the country. "People hear a 'cuts only' approach and think, 'that's my job' or 'that's my neighbor's job,'" he said.
Bredesen, along with Rep. Heath Shuler, one of the North Carolina Democrats who isn't running again, said even with advantageous demographic shifts, their party should still try to reclaim native white Southerners.
Shuler, a member of the Blue Dog caucus, said Southerners aren't as divided as it sometimes appears. He lamented a hyper-partisan atmosphere in Congress that he said spills into party primaries that, in turn, yield extreme options for a general election. Given much of the region's conservative bent, that dynamic has helped Republicans, he reasoned.
Nationally, Bredesen said, Democrats lost their connection with many small-town and rural whites because of a confluence of issues beyond race: Vietnam War protests, gun control, abortion, Supreme Court appointments, gay marriage. "I think the extent to which the national party has made a crusade out of some of these issues has driven people away," he said. To connect with distinct urban, suburban and rural populations, Bredesen said, parties must "appreciate the whole diversity of experiences Americans have in this country."
Barbour said Republicans should win over the growing nonwhite population based on policy. "The change in the South has been evolutionary, and I expect it to continue," he said. "But people in demographic groups evolve, too. Besides African-Americans, who are pretty firm (for Democrats), most other groups ebb and flow."