Owner of the Annex Cafe, the only place to eat in Tracy City, Tennessee, Peggy is a rare find. In her forties, she is a life-long Democrat who stayed loyal to her party in this month's mid-term elections, while others fled in droves to the Republicans. Thus, she should qualify for the epithet ``yellow dog Democrat'', traditionally used to describe the Southern conservative who votes Democrat come what may (even if the candidate is a ``yellow dog'', or cur).
In the nationwide surge in the elections that delivered both sides of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years, nowhere was the current stronger than in the South. For the first time since post-Civil War reconstruction, when Abraham Lincoln's Republican government occupied the states of the defeated Confederacy, the Republicans now have a majority of House and Senate seats in the 11 states that made up the old Confederacy, as well as a majority of state governors. It was a takeover on a grand scale.
The base of Democratic support in the South, historically provided by white conservatives who could not bring themselves to vote for Lincoln's party, has been declining for 40 years, at least in presidential contests. Until now, however, it has remained fairly solid at the level of state and congressional elections, helping to guarantee the Democrats' dominance of Congress in Washington. With that base now crumbling, the consequences for the Democrats nationally - and for Bill Clinton in 1996 - could be fearful.
Merle Black, professor at Atlanta's Emory University, predicts that the Democratic Party in the South may soon be predominantly African-American. ``What we are seeing now is the demise of the conservative Democrat. There is no market left for that in the South,'' he argues. Nor does he believe that President Clinton, himself a Southerner, will be able to win the region back. Hatred for Mr Clinton - hatred it often is - clearly contributed to the Democratic demise. ``He is so low in terms of popularity in the South, no one pays him any attention. He is as dead here as dead could be,'' says Professor Black.
A car journey last week, passing through Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, vividly showed the depth of the Democratic debacle.
First stop: a car auction outside Rome in north-east Georgia, in one of four congressional districts in the state captured by the Republicans. It is a large, mostly male crowd, revving engines and ritually lifting hoods and opening and shutting doors. John, a tall, older man, says he voted Republican this time and only once before in his life - he thinks either in `52 or `56 for Eisenhower. Tim, who has just bought a shiny pick-up for $12,000 (pounds 8,000), switched parties 10 years ago, against his family's wishes. He, and everyone else interviewed, complained of one thing: the Democratic Party belief, as they see it, in welfare and not working for a living. ``Democrats are lazy - you won't find a Republican who does not want to work,'' he says.
Several hours to the west in Huntsville, northern Alabama, the office staff of Bud Cramer, the Democratic incumbent in the fifth district, are celebrating. More than a week after the election, his victory, by less than a single percentage point, has just been certified. No House seats were lost in this state, but several state offices were, including the governorship. ``Until last Tuesday, Alabama was considered a one-party state,'' notes David Butler, an aide to Mr Cramer. ``Suddenly it is a two-party state.'' Also, on the day after the election, an Alabama Senator, Richard Shelby, announced in Washington that he was one Southern conservative who could no longer linger with the Democrats and was defecting to the Republicans. Professor Black expects a handful of Southern Democrat House members will follow him.
In Tennessee, home of Vice-President Al Gore, it was a Republican rout. Both Senate seats, two House seats and the governor's mansion were taken from Democrats. Surely, here in Tracy City, however, a lonely, broken-down place high in the tail of the Appalachian chain where the once-thriving coal industry is in its last throes, a few ``yellow dogs'' would still be hiding? Not really. Even here - Peggy and one or two others apart - there is disgust and despair with the Democrats and the President.
``It's pitiful, I might as well vote for the birds,'' growls J R Cuttingham, sitting on the bumper of his sagging Dodge sedan, which looks several thousand miles short of roadworthy. Once in charge of the town's school buses but now retired, he has voted Democrat in every election he can remember. This time he just did not bother. ``It seems like a waste of time to vote. It's just so much bullshit. It's a sad situation.''
Carl Douglas, a retired miner, voted Republican - for the first time. Sitting in his pick-up outside the Annex Cafe and idling the hours away, he says (thumping the steering-wheel as he raps out the words): ``We elected him and in the first 30 days he is harping on about gays and lesbians and homosexuals.''
The beneficiary of Mr Douglas's switched loyalty is Zach Wamp, an effervescent 37-year-old property developer who won this southern district of Tennessee, centred on Chattanooga, for the Republicans. He, too, comes from a staunch Democratic household. ``My mother and father were at Jimmy Carter's inauguration,'' he reports. He made the leap when Ronald Reagan took the White House. His father followed; his mother, so far, has not.
Mr Wamp believes his party can reach beyond white urban conservatives to the rural counties, even to Southern blacks. He won 20 per cent of the black vote in the district. ``It is pretty exciting. I think we represent the value system of most people here better than the Democrats. Last Tuesday was a referendum [against] the advancement of socialism in this country.''
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content