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2020 candidates, welcome to the South, y'all

Updated 6:47 PM ET, Thu February 13, 2020

Editor's Note: Mitch Landrieu, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018, and recently founded the E Pluribus Unum Fund to help break down barriers across race and class in the South, is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - Come on down, y'all!

Now, the race for the Democratic nomination is on. And one major region of the country will be front and center in the coming weeks: the South.

Beyond South Carolina, the South has rarely played a meaningful role in either party's nominating process. Not this year.

Now that almost 2% of delegates have been awarded from two very white states, attention will quickly shift to my neck of the woods.

The South will play a determinative role in the Democratic primary. Nearly 99.9% of African American and 99.8% of Latino voters have not yet had the chance to cast their votes this primary season, and much of it will happen in the month of March in southern states.

For the candidates who have spent all of their time and attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, the trip below the Mason-Dixon line may feel like whiplash.

The South may be the one region that can best reflect the great diversity of this country, and the identities that make up the Democratic electorate there vary in many ways well beyond race -- age, ideology, lifestyle and more. And many of the primaries are open, meaning independents can vote.

Between now and the end of March, when close to two-thirds of delegates will be allocated, candidates will have to visit Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. My home state of Louisiana votes on April 4 but early voting begins in March.

There are states with major delegate hauls. And states where black and brown voters will play a huge role. In some Deep South states, African Americans are expected to make up more than half of the Democratic primary electorate. And large and growing Latino populations will likely play a decisive role in Florida, North Carolina and Texas.

But there are also large numbers of veterans, rural white communities, and everything in between.

Given that most of the candidates have been catering to the early states, let me offer a few ideas they might want to consider.

Run toward the race, not away from it

The early states have long shaped the issue debate every four years. Ethanol and farm bill subsidies can get deeper coverage than criminal justice reform, closing the racial wealth gap or voting rights. And other major issues important to people of color get short shrift. So, as we move south, talk less about ethanol and more about equity.

Luckily, candidates have done a decent job in 2020 of laying out policy on issues related to our country's long struggle with race -- but they will have to double down to compete in the South. Voters care about healing the wounds of the past, which has never been more important given who currently occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

All candidates of both parties have highlighted racial equality or racial justice policies, but some have outlined more thoughtful approaches than others with actionable plans beyond platitudes. Breaking down the barriers that divide us requires a multi-pronged approach, and voters here are looking for the unfulfilled promise of justice and opportunity for all and an inclusive vision for a new South. They want unity and equity.

Talk about voting rights

In this great democracy of ours, voting is a right, not a privilege. Some Republican legislatures and Secretaries of State in the South have been doing their best to roll back voting rights -- instituting massive purges of voter rolls, adding more stringent registration requirements, prohibiting those who have served time from voting, removing polling locations from college campuses, and more. Look no further than questionable tactics in Georgia and Florida in 2018 that undermined two African American candidates in those states.

Candidates should use this moment to address our broken democracy head on.

Go everywhere, talk about eliminating poverty

Irrespective of race, southern communities struggle with intergenerational poverty.

This is true in urban areas and rural ones -- for the old and young. While the stock market may be doing well in President Donald Trump's economy, there are large swaths of the South that haven't felt this so-called economic progress and are feeling left behind in an economy that is shifting away from manufacturing, oil & gas, and agriculture.

Candidates should lay out their plans for rebuilding the middle class and lifting folks out of poverty.

Press the flesh and get your grub on

Maybe not unlike the early states, southern voters -- and Black voters in particular -- will "feel" you just as much as hear you out on the trail.

They can tell who is comfortable and who is not. They can sniff out authenticity or phony-ism. Black churches have a huge influence in southern politics, so candidates should get comfortable sitting through hour-long sermons the next few Sundays. Faith also plays a major role in bringing communities together. Overall, be prepared for a lot of small groups, churches, barber shops and diners.

And speaking of diners, very few places appreciate food like the South. The southern food culture is strong from Texas, Memphis and Carolina BBQ to the Deep South's soul food to the shrimp and grits of the Low Country. So be prepared to eat.

Demonstrate you can beat Trump.

Ultimately, southern Democrats are pragmatists. They want someone who can beat Trump and restore sanity to the White House. The candidate that can show, not just tell voters how to beat Trump, will get a lot of support.

Finally, we in the South believe that our diversity is our strength, not a weakness.

And we know that we have a lot to offer the rest of America.

Treat us with due respect just as you have these other early states, and we will respect you in return. Good luck!


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