Buoyed by recent wins, Democrats eye Southern seats

Published 11:58 pm Saturday, May 17, 2008

The political fortunes of Democrats down South once were so bad that people openly joked even Jesus Christ would lose by a double-digit margin if he ran for office on the party’s ticket.

It might be time to put that joke to rest.

In special elections recently, Democrats snatched away two congressional seats that Republicans had held for decades in Mississippi and Louisiana, the heart of the Bible Belt. Come November, more GOP losses could play out in Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida.

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No one is ready to paint the South blue, but for the first time in years, Democrats are making noise in a region previously seen as lost to Republicans for good.

“It’s harvest time,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone of Montgomery, Ala., who worked on the Louisiana and Mississippi elections.

From 1994 until 2004, “it was pretty much a desert run” for Democrats, Anzalone said. Now, he said, “the Republican brand has taken a hit.”

“When you have economic anxieties, the wedge issues that Republicans use just aren’t that important,” Anzalone said. “People aren’t fat and happy now. They’re worried.”

Democrats dominated the South through the first half of the 20th century. But as President Lyndon Johnson famously predicted when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the party gradually slid into regional oblivion.

It started with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of exploiting white frustration with desegregation orders, and continued as Southern voters came to view national Democratic policies as out of touch with their values. In some states, local party organizations went dormant or collapsed. Democrats didn’t just lose elections, they routinely failed to field credible candidates, and dozens of their incumbents switched parties to survive.

That transformation proved crucial to President Bush’s two White House victories, and the GOP’s historic takeover of Congress in 1994.

Two years ago, signs emerged that Democrats were starting to fight back. Heath Shuler, former NFL quarterback and outspoken Christian, ran as a Democrat in rural western North Carolina and beat an eight-term Republican incumbent. Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia became one of just a handful of Southern Democratic senators when he stunned Republican Sen. George Allen, who had been mentioned as a 2008 presidential candidate.

The two most recent Democratic victories are particularly startling because they came in Deep South districts that Bush won in 2004 with about 60 percent of the vote.

Aside from those victories, renewed optimism is evident in the party’s candidate recruitment. Democrats are drawing top names in areas where they might have struggled to field a warm body just a few years ago.

In rural southeastern Alabama, for example, the popular, independent mayor of Montgomery was wooed by both parties to run for a heavily Republican seat being vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Terry Everett. The mayor, Bobby Bright, chose the Democrats, and the seat is now one of a handful that the party is optimistic about picking up this fall.

About 200 miles north near Huntsville, Republican hopes in another open seat were muted when they couldn’t recruit their favored candidate. Instead, they settled for an insurance executive who lost twice to retiring Democrat Bud Cramer. Democrats, meanwhile, landed an independently wealthy state senator who is considered the front-runner.

Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker from Georgia who helped the GOP seize control of Congress in 1994, credited Democratic strategists for shifting their message.

The Democratic winners so far have addressed social issues head-on, boasting of their conservative positions on abortion, gay marriage and gun rights, for example, while hammering Republicans for misguided leadership on the economy and the war in Iraq.

“I think they learned that if they remained a hard-left, anti-gun, anti-prayer, pro-abortion, weak-on-defense party they were never going to have a chance to get back in the majority,” Gingrich said.

Another factor has been demographic changes. The South for years has been a growth magnet. Between 2006 and 2007, 70 of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties were in the South, according to census figures, and many of the newcomers are Northerners and minorities who view politics differently from native Southerners.

At the same time, an unusual number of Republican retirements has created open seats, which are easier for challengers to win.

It remains unclear whether the Democratic inroads will prove fleeting or if the party is staging a more lasting comeback. Even the most optimistic of Democrats isn’t predicting near-term victories in the most conservative rural and suburban areas that comprise much of the South.

According to Gingrich, just how far the momentum will go hinges largely on Sen. Barack Obama, the Democrats’ front-runner for the nomination who swept to primary wins in the South with huge support from black voters.

“If Obama turns out to be the next JFK, then the Democrats are going to consolidate their power,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody can say which candidate Obama will turn out to be.”