The Southern Progress Fund

It wasn't always this way. I'm not talking about some distant, long ago, pre-Great Society America. You would be forgiven if you thought that the American South had been a vast sea of Red dating back to the days of Goldwater. But you would be wrong.

In 1990, Republicans didn't control a single state legislative chamber in the South. Not one. By 2000, the GOP controlled just two state houses and three state senates. Today, of the 18 legislative chambers in the Southern Crescent -- from Texas to Kentucky to North Carolina to Florida, and all points in-between -- Republicans now control all of them but one.

Democrats cannot and should not write off an entire region of the country, and we certainly cannot ignore the South, which like other regions of the country has a long history of producing great leaders. There are plenty of very good candidates in the South right now that happen to be Democrats. Unfortunately, many are discouraged from running for office because of the recent perception that the South has been ceded to the Republican Party.

We disagree.

President Obama got 44 percent of the vote in South Carolina and Mississippi in 2012. He got 45 percent in Georgia, without mounting a serious challenge for any of these states. We feel like we can provide the level of support that encourages good candidates to run and win.

If Democrats instead invest in the South, like it has in other regions of the country, then we will begin to get what we pay for. And instead of losing a lot of critical Southern voices and potential leaders in the making, we will empower a new generation of leaders committed to equality for all Americans.

We started the Southern Progress Fund to change that. Southern Progress Fund is a newly formed, multi-state organization that seeks to lay the long-term groundwork for the South to once again be a competitive battleground for Democrats.

It will take time before multiple states in the South are "in play" or considered battleground states in presidential elections. In the meantime, however, there are many candidates to recruit, elections to be won, and voters to register. And in the process, those that have earned the right to vote through the sacrifice and protest and courage, to stand up for the rights afforded to them by the Constitution must be protected in the face of those that would suppress their voice in desperate attempts to cling to power.

How will we do this? First, by recruiting candidates who otherwise might not run for office. Second, by raising money and supporting candidates in elections where small amounts of support mean the difference between winning and losing. And third, by registering voters and working to protect their vote.

Immediately after the Supreme Court decision to repeal Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, six states in the South took action to enact voter suppression laws without prior approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. While not unique to the South, onerous voter ID and other voter suppression laws have always been designed to disenfranchise low-income seniors, African-Americans and Latinos.

Enhanced efforts to disenfranchise Democratic voters make the need for organized efforts to protect all Americans right to be heard more necessary than it has been in decades. As such, The Southern Progress Fund will partner with the Southern Progress Action Fund, a separate non-profit organization, to fund aggressive voter registration and voter protection efforts throughout the South.

The Southern Progress Fund will bring much-needed resources into multiple Southern states where Democrats must identify up-and-coming leaders, and build a bench of strong potential candidates up and down the ballot.

Important state legislative races and statewide elections for offices like Lt. Governor and Attorneys General are often overshadowed by gubernatorial and federal elections. We believe focusing our efforts specifically on these state and local races is especially critical as we inch closer to the next Census in 2020 and redistricting.

The initial response to our efforts has been overwhelming -- and not just from other Southerners who are disaffected with their own state governments. People from all over the country see how putting the South in play changes the landscape of races throughout the nation.

It would be a mistake to think this effort is based entirely on demographic shifts. We believe that the core principles that the Democratic Party has championed -- equal opportunity through education; supporting the needs of small businesses over large corporate interests; affordable health care for everyone -- are values that made the economic modernization of the South possible.

We understand the political ripple effect this will have on national politics, and will work within that dynamic.

Every day we see voters in South that are hungry for more options. The extreme far-right fringe of the Republican Party has a stranglehold on the South. This ideological dominance is holding back much-needed progress. That grip is loosening and Southern Progress Fund will work hard to accelerate that process. Through time and dedication, we will make it okay to be a proud Democrat in the South once again.