A Holy-Roller Demo­crat

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Dan Gil­goff

John Arthur Eaves bap­tized three of his four sons in the Jor­dan River, an event he high­lights in a ra­dio cam­paign ad. The can­di­date for gov­er­nor of Mis­sis­sippi thinks Roe v. Wade should be over­turned, calls for rein­tro­duc­ing school prayer and wants lim­its on river­boat gam­bling — all hot- but­ton is­sues among evan­gel­i­cal pas­tors. A baby- faced trial lawyer with a flair for self- pro­mo­tion, Eaves is em­ploy­ing the same tried- and- true cam­paign tac­tics as many Repub­li­cans run­ning in the South, the Mid­west and other cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive parts of the coun­try.

But Eaves isn’t just any old run- of- the- mill evan­gel­i­cal can­di­date — he’s a Demo­crat. And he’s chal­leng­ing not just any first- term gov­er­nor, but Ha­ley Bar­bour, a for­mer chair­man of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee and a Go­liath in the GOP, with pos­si­ble de­signs on the White House.

At stake is not just the gov­er­nor’s man­sion in Jack­son, but ar­guably also the fu­ture of the na­tional Demo­cratic Party. That’s be­cause Democrats have al­most com­pletely lost their grip on the South, with the num­ber of South­ern Demo­cratic U. S. sen­a­tors dwin­dling from 20 in 1980 to five to­day. In the past two pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, the Demo­cratic ticket lost ev­ery South­ern state. And de­spite Demo­cratic Se­nate pick­ups in the so- called Up­per South states of Mis­souri and Vir­ginia in 2006, com­pet­i­tive statewide races that year in Ten­nessee and Florida went to Repub­li­cans. A win by Eaves “ would be a shot across the bow to the Repub­li­can Party that Democrats can com­pete in the South again,” says Mike Mikus, Eaves’s chief cam­paign strate­gist.

But an Eaves vic­tory would also be a shot across the bow to the Democrats’ lib­eral base, rais­ing the ques­tion of how far the party is will­ing to go in jet­ti­son­ing its sup­port for abor­tion rights, gay rights and a high wall of sep­a­ra­tion be­tween church and state for a chance at elec­toral suc­cess. Eaves’s cam­paign asks: Just how big should the Democrats’ tent be?

The po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­lus be­hind Eaves’s can­di­dacy is sim­ple. By neu­tral­iz­ing the tra­di­tional GOP ad­van­tage on so­cial is­sues, Democrats hope to fo­cus on eco­nomic is­sues, where, par­tic­u­larly in pover­tys­tricken Mis­sis­sippi, they be­lieve they have the up­per hand. Eaves, a grad­u­ate of Ole Miss and now a wealthy lawyer whose dirty- blond mane is a fix­ture in le­gal ads across the state, is an un­abashed pop­ulist. He sup­ports uni­ver­sal health care, large in­creases in pub­lic school fund­ing and a so- called liv­ing wage. He at­tacks Bar­bour for op­pos­ing a “ tax swap” that would slash the gro­cery tax and raise the to­bacco tax and for push­ing 50,000 low- in­come res­i­dents off state Med­i­caid rolls.

Eaves roots his pop­ulism in the same evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­ity as his so­cial po­si­tions. “ A lot of peo­ple ask me, ‘ How are you a Demo­crat and a Chris­tian?’ ” he says in his Jack­son of­fice, fes­tooned with pho­tos from his 1996 trip to Is­rael to bap­tize his sons. “ And I say, ‘ Be­cause I’m a Chris­tian, I’m a Demo­crat.’ Christ healed the sick, reached out to the poor and came to tell us the truth, which to­day would trans­late into sup­port for health care and ed­u­ca­tion. Christ came to help peo­ple, and I be­lieve that’s the role of the Demo­cratic Party.”

Eaves, whose fa­ther also ran — un­suc­cess­fully — for gov­er­nor as a Demo­crat, faces an up­hill climb. At 40, he has al­ready lost a bid for Congress and he aborted a 2003 chal­lenge to the then- gov­er­nor, a Demo­crat, af­ter just two months. The most re­cent pub­lic polls, re­leased late last year, put Bar­bour’s ap­proval rat­ing at 59 per­cent. A long­time to­bacco lob­by­ist with strong Repub­li­can fundrais­ing ties, Bar­bour has said he’ll raise $ 13 mil­lion for the race.

But Eaves’s in­ter­nal polls show that with the right mes­sag­ing, Bar­bour’s sup­port could be brought be­low 50 per­cent. And in ad­di­tion to tap­ping his tri­allawyer net­work, Eaves is ex­pected to plow some of his own mil­lions into the race. Eaves’s most se­ri­ous chal­lenger for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion dropped out of the race last week; he will now face three oth­ers in an Au­gust pri­mary.

Eaves ap­pears to rep­re­sent the next step in the Demo­cratic Party’s plan for mak­ing in­roads among evan­gel­i­cals and other se­ri­ous church­go­ers. Af­ter its 2004 drub­bing, when all five re­tir­ing South­ern Demo­cratic sen­a­tors were re­placed by Repub­li­cans, Democrats reached out to “ val­ues vot­ers.” In 2005, Ti­mothy M. Kaine, the win­ning Vir­ginia Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date, re­served his first ads for Chris­tian ra­dio. In 2006, the Demo­cratic Party per­suaded a pro- choice can­di­date in Penn­syl­va­nia to drop her Se­nate bid to clear the field for the ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful Robert P. Casey Jr., an abor­tion op­po­nent.

But Kaine and Casey weren’t out­right re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives. Eaves is.

So far, most lib­eral groups have kept quiet about Eaves, though he says that some Demo­cratic con­sul­tants have de­clined to lend sup­port be­cause of his con­ser­va­tive so­cial views. Na­tional lib­eral groups such as Planned Par­ent­hood say that Eaves is an anom­aly and that de­spite the suc­cess­ful 2006 can­di­da­cies of abor­tion op­po­nents such as Casey in Penn­syl­va­nia and Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Demo­crat, the party is field­ing more pro- choice can­di­dates. They point out that even cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive states such as Mon­tana and Vir­ginia elected pro- choice Democrats to the Se­nate last Novem­ber.

But Democrats took back Congress in 2006 be­cause of dis­sat­is­fac­tion over the Iraq war and con­gres­sional cor­rup­tion scan­dals, not by rid­ing a prochoice wave. Be­ing tied to the lib­eral im­age of the Demo­cratic Party has be­come such a li­a­bil­ity in states such as Mis­sis­sippi that its lieu­tenant gov­er­nor changed par­ties in 2002, be­com­ing a Repub­li­can.

That de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of his party’s “ brand” pro­voked Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Howard Dean to pour tens of mil­lions of dol­lars into res­ur­rect­ing the party in the red­dest states, in­clud­ing Mis­sis­sippi. Last year, the DNC hired four full- time staff mem­bers on be­half of the Mis­sis­sippi Demo­cratic Party, which for­merly had one. And yet Mis­sis­sippi’s old- guard Demo­cratic county chair­men, like those in other red states, keep grous­ing that a ro­bust party in­fra­struc­ture is use­less with­out a top- of- the- ticket can­di­date whom vot­ers can get ex­cited about.

To hear his cam­paign tell it, that’s where Eaves comes in — as a gre­gar­i­ous sav­ior, lead­ing flocks to the vot­ing booth while he en­thuses about Je­sus. If Eaves and sim­i­lar can­di­dates suc­ceed in open­ing up red states, their strat­egy could be the Democrats’ ticket to win­ning back the pres­i­dency and a com­mand­ing ma­jor­ity in Congress.

But Eaves still has to prove that he can win in a state in which white evan­gel­i­cals, who make up half the elec­torate, voted for Pres­i­dent Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry by 88 per­cent to 12. And the party’s base still has to de­cide that the cost of such vic­to­ries isn’t too much to bear.

au­thor@ the­je­sus­ma­chine. com


On Jor­dan’s banks: Gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date John Arthur Eaves af­ter his sons’ bap­tism in the Holy Land.

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