This spring, senators in South Carolina found some predictable things to fight about. There were the budget arguments endemic to capitols everywhere in a time of shortage, and there were the standard pork- barrel battles between Upstate and the Low Country. But there was also a brand-new kind of fight, over something seemingly innocuous: publication of the legislative manual.

This year's edition of the manual included several old photographs of Strom Thurmond, the state's centenarian political icon, and black Democrats complained that the editors were paying homage to Thurmond's--and South Carolina's--segregationist past. "Strom Thurmond was probably the number one racist Dixiecrat," says Senator Robert Ford. He and several black colleagues refused to send out copies of the manual barring formal request.

Republican legislators argued that Ford was making a big deal out of nothing, or, worse, insulting a figure who is revered by many, if not most, South Carolinians. The flap provided plenty of fodder for local media, including talk-radio hosts who love nothing better than playing up a good, stark-sided controversy. "Republicans don't want to hear anything negative about Strom Thurmond," Ford says. "They are living in another world."

In a way, that is true. In South Carolina politics these days, there are two parties, two races and two incompatible ideologies. All the black legislators are Democrats; all the Republicans are white. Because of the way the state's political map has been redrawn, most of the blacks represent districts where there are hardly any whites worth worrying about, and vice versa. As in many Southern states, the GOP and black Democrats have colluded, despite their differences, to produce maps that benefit both.

Neither the Republicans nor the black Democrats--who together make up a huge majority--have much practical incentive for considering the interests of the other group's constituents. "If you want to get reelected and you're black, you don't want to talk to white voters," says Dick Harpootlian, who recently stepped down as chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "If you're white and running for reelection, you don't want to talk to blacks. We've institutionalized this idea that race predominates over any other interest."

Both sides can help themselves politically by making a fuss about racially charged matters, whether these are substantive or, more often, symbolic disputes about pictures of Strom Thurmond, or where to display the Confederate flag.

But there are clear losers: the Democratic Party as a whole, and especially the white Democratic establishment that dominated state politics for over a century. "White Democrats are left out," says Harpootlian. "They can't win in white districts, because of the appeals to racial issues, and they can't win in black districts, because there, race trumps."

Since white voters constitute more than two-thirds of the state electorate, it is arguable that a polarized racial politics means guaranteed Republican legislative majorities for years to come. Two decades ago, the South Carolina House was made up of 107 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Virtually all of the Democratic majority was white. In 1994, the GOP won control, narrowly at first. Today, the Democrats are down to 51 seats. The ranks of white Democrats have dwindled to 27 out of 124 members in the House, and 13 of 46 in the Senate.

DRASTIC CONSEQUENCES

South Carolina is by no means the only place where this sort of thing is going on. Throughout the deep South, partisan racial divisions are proving hazardous to Democratic political health. "We've lost the branding war that's basically been going on now for a couple of decades," says Democratic strategist Kevin Geddings. "We've allowed the Democratic Party to become identified as a party that is only appealing to African Americans. That obviously has had some pretty drastic consequences."

The consequences are as easy to document in other states as they are in South Carolina. Following the elections of 1992, Democrats still held every legislative chamber in the South, with the exception of the Florida Senate, which was tied. Today, Republicans control 13 of the 26 chambers. Legislatures that were solidly Democratic for a century have, one by one, fallen into GOP hands.

Atlanta-based Republican pollster Whit Ayres calls the Democratic Party in the South a "coalition of minorities," and many other political observers agree with him. Republicans don't like to put it that way; they prefer to emphasize their party's ideological match with voters in the region, who historically have favored a low-tax, low-service relationship with their state governments. "You don't win every statewide office in the state unless you're attuned with the voters," says consultant Bill Miller of Texas.

Whatever the initial reasons for the party's success, once the GOP does gain the upper hand, as in South Carolina, its grip nearly always grows stronger. Republicans won their first majority in the Virginia House as recently as 1999 but already have a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in seats. Florida Republicans broke a 122-year-old Democratic hold on the state House only in 1996 but enjoy a 42-seat margin today. "Once the Republicans take over, then they become the party of the future," says Ayres. "Aspiring young politicians see the Republican Party as the route to power, rather than the Democratic Party. Moreover, established Democratic politicians who want to hold power start to switch."

By now, of course, it's an old story that Democratic dominance of the South, which lasted from the Civil War until near the end of the 20th century, is a thing of the past. The South has supported Republican candidates for president since the 1950s and, for nearly as long, most Southern states have been willing to elect GOP candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate. But state legislatures remained a bastion of Democratic control until quite recently. There were enough conservative white Democrats who were familiar to voters in their relatively small districts and could overcome a growing disregard for a party that had a national image too liberal to play well in the region.

Conservative white Democrats do remain a force in many Southern legislatures, and continue to hold the key leadership positions in some of them, such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. As they retire, however, most are being replaced by legislators who resemble them ideologically but who pledge allegiance to the GOP. This generational switch is reflected among the electorate as well. Some older white voters, especially in rural areas, still identify with the Democratic Party. But not many of the younger ones do--and very few among those who have moved in from outside the South.

Exit polls from the 2000 elections showed that throughout the South, Democrats were at a decided disadvantage among self-described moderates. Democrats held a 20-point lead over Republicans among white moderates aged 60 and over. But Republicans had a 14-point advantage among white moderates aged 18 to 44, with an even greater advantage in the younger half of that scale.

Polling conducted more recently by Ayres' firm indicate a much more drastic change. In statewide polls, white voters between the ages of 18 and 34 identified themselves as Republican by a margin of 59 to 6 in South Carolina and by 69 to 11 in Mississippi. Only among senior citizens did Democrats approach respectability. And even in that age bracket, the GOP held a significant advantage. "The long-term trends here are very grim for the Democratic Party unless they somehow manage to reverse this," says political scientist Merle Black, of Emory University in Atlanta.

RISING TIDE

Democrats will never be as weak in the South as Republicans were back when Strom Thurmond was young. For one thing, they can't be counted out in statewide contests. Even 40 percent of the white vote can win them a statewide election in most of the South, and a strong candidate has a chance to reach this level. Mark Warner was elected governor of Virginia in 2001, while his party lost a dozen seats in the state House. Even those Republicans who are most gleeful about their party's growing power in the region concede that the right Democratic candidate for statewide office can still beat a weak Republican.

But the trends are clearly running the other way. Democrats stand a fair chance of losing all three of this year's gubernatorial elections, in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Last year, three incumbent Democratic governors were defeated in the South. All had been elected four years earlier on the strength of money from trial lawyers and gambling interests; all fell victim to the Republican enthusiasm that accompanied the buildup to war with Iraq.

Geddings, once the top aide to unseated South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges, worries that just about the only potent issue his party has been able to lay claim to in the past few years is support for a state lottery to raise money. It sometimes gets results--the lottery helped put Democrat Phil Bredesen over the top in Tennessee's gubernatorial election last year--but, as Geddings says, "we need another issue--we can't build a party on the lottery."

What is happening to Democrats in the South isn't happening everywhere in the country. The role of minorities in the Democratic Party is increasing in virtually every state, but in several crucial ones, this is helping rather than hurting. Redistricting and Hispanic population growth doubled the number of Hispanic-dominated districts in both the Illinois House and Senate last year, helping Democrats to win control of both chambers. In California, where Democrats dominate all levels of state government, Republican attacks on immigrants have done the GOP serious long-term damage. "Republicans offended the fastest-growing segment of the population," says political scientist Gary Jacobson, of the University of California, San Diego, "and offended them in a way that inspired them to become citizens and to become voters."

As has been widely reported, Latinos are increasing in numbers throughout the United States. Census forecasts suggest that whites will no longer be a majority of the nation's population by 2050. Over the long haul, that would seem to bode well for Democrats.

But it will require, even outside the South, that they avoid being typecast among white voters as the exclusive party of blacks and Latinos. In California, Jacobson says, "Democrats are doing fine, but they're not just the party of minorities. They're certainly the party favored by minorities, but they also get a lot of white voters." The Republican social conservatism and anti-government rhetoric that sells well in South Carolina has not helped the GOP among California's highly educated and suburban white middle class.

Where hard-right politics does work, however, as in most of the South, Democrats will need a different but equally effective strategy if they are to reclaim their competitive status anytime soon.

FLAG POLITICS

One good place to watch these forces play out is Georgia. Last fall, in the biggest upset of the political year, Sonny Perdue became the first Republican elected governor of the state since 1868. Democrats held on to their majorities in both legislative chambers, but shortly after the election, Perdue persuaded four Democratic state senators to follow his example and switch to the Republican Party, giving the GOP control of the Senate. The House will probably follow suit in an election cycle or two. As in South Carolina, racial symbols are an important driver of the transition. In Georgia, the most important symbol is the Confederate flag.

During his 2002 campaign, Perdue promised voters he'd offer them a referendum on the state's flag, which had been altered by Democratic Governor Roy Barnes the previous year. Barnes had removed the St. Andrew's "battle flag" design, to the delight of business interests that wanted to avoid the controversy and boycotts that had swirled around Confederate flag fights in South Carolina and Mississippi. It turned out that controversy was just being postponed. Georgia's so- called "flaggers" went to the polls in large numbers in 2002, especially in some of the rural Democratic counties, and were a major factor in Barnes' unexpected defeat.

Conservative white Democrats, who still control most of the leadership posts in the Georgia House, initially went along with Perdue's plans for a referendum. At the end of the legislative session in April, however, the black legislative caucus persuaded Speaker Terry Coleman, who is white, to switch his vote and support a choice of flags, but not one that includes a prominent Confederate insignia. Coleman brought several white Democrats along with him, all but guaranteeing serious flagger opposition in 2004. The flaggers have already been active in Coleman's district and those of other white Democrats, vowing they'll get their revenge at the polls.

The episode presented a classic example of the tensions that surround the Democratic Party right now in Southern politics. In voting against the Confederate flag design, Coleman and other white Democrats knew they were guaranteeing themselves unwanted trouble next year. But had they voted the other way, they would have opened a rift within their own caucus, where black legislators constitute more than one-third of the membership. In making the choice to side with them, Coleman strengthened his position as party leader but may have jeopardized his own House seat, and perhaps enough others to threaten the shaky Democratic majority in the chamber.

"Up until this last election, you had a curious coalition that lasted for 40 years, of rural whites and urban blacks who maintained a Democratic majority," says Bill Shipp, editor of a newsletter on Georgia politics. He predicts Democrats will lose that majority in 2004 or, at the latest, 2006. Shipp thinks the flag issue, symbolic though it may be, has the potency to switch the necessary number of votes in rural areas. As for the remaining rural white Democratic legislators, he has a two-word description for them. "They're dinosaurs," Shipp says.