Democrats again whistling Dixie af­ter spe­cial elec­tion wins

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Sean Lengell and Don­ald Lam­bro

Demo­cratic lead­ers, em­bold­ened by re­cent spe­cial House elec­tion vic­to­ries in long-stand­ing Repub­li­can dis­tricts, are gain­ing con­fi­dence they can re­take the Deep South and other for­mer po­lit­i­cal strongholds ceded decades ago to the GOP.

While even the most op­ti­mistic Democrats aren’t pre­dict­ing a re­turn to the Dix­ie­crat era, when South­ern­ers would rather vote for a “yel­low dog” than a Repub­li­can, the party is hav­ing more suc­cess in re­cruit­ing po­lit­i­cally at­trac­tive can­di­dates who re­flect the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of their dis­tricts.

“This is re­ally not about ide­ol­ogy. It’s about power,” said Leon Panetta, a one-time chief of staff to Pres­i­dent Clin­ton who served as a Demo­cratic con­gress­man from Cal­i­for­nia from 1977 to 1993.

“Repub­li­cans as well as Democrats look for can­di­dates who best ap­peal to their dis­tricts that they’re run­ning in,” he said. “What you want are can­di­dates who have the best chance of win­ning, not los­ing, and it just seems to me that’s pretty prag­matic on the part of the peo­ple who run the [Demo­cratic] cam­paign com­mit­tee, and that’s what’s pay­ing off for them.”

But the math­e­mat­ics and South­ern po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts both sug­gest that what­ever changes are hap­pen­ing will not be enough to help Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Demo­cratic White House nom­i­nee, win back the re­gion at the pres­i­den­tial level.

A state-by-state Sur­veyUSA poll in March, in a matchup with Repub­li­can Sen. John McCain, showed the fresh­man sen­a­tor from Chicago los­ing all South­ern states ex­cept Vir­ginia, where the two can­di­dates were in a dead heat at 47 per­cent.

Mr. Obama did win a string of South­ern pri­maries over Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, largely be­cause of his huge ap­peal among black vot­ers. But that fac­tor won’t change the math in a gen­eral elec­tion be­cause blacks have voted over­whelm­ingly Demo­cratic for decades, re­gard­less of who topped the ticket.

“Car­ry­ing any South­ern state, I just think it’s still a long shot at this point. He could put Florida and Vir­ginia in play, but the rest of the South is a steep climb,” said Tom Bax­ter, ed­i­tor of the At­lanta-based South­ern Po­lit­i­cal Re­port.

At­lanta-based Repub­li­can poll­ster Whit Ayres agreed, call­ing Mr. Obama’s chances “vir­tu­ally hope­less out­side of the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Vir­ginia, which will be com­pet­i­tive be­cause of the Yan­kee in­va­sion.”

“There’s a lot of talk about how Obama will stim­u­late a large African-Amer­i­can turnout and put South­ern states like Mis­sis­sippi and Alabama in play, but he will also stim­u­late an ex­tremely large white voter turnout as well,” Mr. Ayres said. “He’d need one-third of the white vote to win any of those states, and I do not see him achiev­ing that level of sup­port among white South­ern­ers.”

Mr. Obama’s weak­ness among lower-in­come white vot­ers was seen most re­cently in the May 13 West Vir­ginia pri­mary, which Mrs. Clin­ton won de­ci­sively, by 65 per­cent to 24 per­cent. A re­cent ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post na­tional sur­vey of vot­ers found that “among whites who haven’t gone through col­lege, 17 per­cent say they’d be at least some­what un­com­fort­able with a black pres­i­dent.”

But the party is op­ti­mistic about con­gres­sional races, say­ing it is find­ing can­di­dates who em­pha­size lo­cal is­sues.

On May 18, the Demo­cratic Sen­a­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee sent re­porters a blast e-mail, tout­ing their can­di­dates’ be­ing ef­fec­tively tied in polls against Repub­li­can in­cum­bents in two South­ern Se­nate races.

In one poll, North Carolina state Sen. Kay Ha­gan led Sen. El­iz­a­beth Dole by 48 per­cent to 47 per­cent in a Ras­mussen poll from early in the week. In the other, Texas state Rep. Rick Nor­iega trailed Sen. John Cornyn by 47 per­cent to 43 per­cent in an­other Ras­mussen sur­vey from early this month. Both sur­veys polled 500 vot­ers and had an er­ror mar­gin of 4.5 per­cent­age points.

Democrats this month picked up two con­ser­va­tive mem­bers when Travis Childers in Mis­sis­sippi and Don Caza­y­oux in Louisiana won spe­cial House elec­tions in dis­tricts long held by Repub­li­cans. And in March, Bill Fos­ter won a spe­cial elec­tion in Illi­nois to fill the seat for­merly held for more than 20 years by Repub­li­can House Speaker J. Den­nis Hastert.

Repub­li­can at­tempts to por­tray Mr. Childers and Mr. Caza­y­oux as tax-happy lib­er­als and tie them to such na­tional lib­eral icons as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mr. Obama didn’t stick, de­spite the na­tional party spend­ing more than $1 mil­lion in both races.

But both Democrats have so­cially con­ser­va­tive po­si­tions on such is­sues as gun rights and abor­tion, and cam­paigned as fis­cal con­ser­va­tives, prompt­ing Rep. Gene Tay­lor of Mis­sis­sippi, a mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tive Demo­cratic Blue Dog Cau­cus, to call those ef­forts a mis­take.

“Travis Childers did a great job of re­mind­ing the vot­ers that this [race] was about who’s go­ing to rep­re­sent the needs of north­ern Mis­sis­sippi in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and not the other way around,” Mr. Tay­lor said. “This wasn’t a na­tional race. It was a lo­cal race.”

The Demo­cratic lead­er­ship, ea­ger to hold on to their new seats, have be­come smarter, many po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts say.

“They un­der­stand that to build and then to ex­pand a ma­jor­ity you can’t have — in a di­verse coun­try and a di­verse party — a one-size-fits-all tem­plate for a can­di­date,” said Bill Gal­ston of the Brook­ings In­sti­tute and a for­mer chief do­mes­tic ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Clin­ton.

“Once a party breaks through in a pre­vi­ously un­avail­able dis­trict, they then re­ally fo­cus hard on pour­ing re­in­force­ments into the beach­head, try­ing to hold it against what no doubt will be a care­fully tar­geted on­slaught [by the op­po­si­tion], and do­ing that means pay­ing some re­ally spe­cific at­ten­tion to dis­trict-level needs of th­ese new mem­bers.”

House Ma­jor­ity Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Mary­land also down­played the po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween his new South­ern col­leagues and the rest of the Demo­cratic Cau­cus, say­ing they all share the party’s con­cern over fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and bal­anc­ing the fed­eral bud­get.

“Childers ran on kitchen-ta­ble is­sues, on pock­et­book is­sues for peo­ple in the 1st Con­gres­sional Dis­trict of Mis­sis­sippi,” he said. “I will tell you that ev­ery mem­ber of the Demo­cratic Cau­cus es­sen­tially be­lieves those are the is­sues which are our is­sues.”

A ma­jor ques­tion be­ing raised by Demo­cratic lead­ers in the South has been what ef­fect Mr. Obama would have on the party’s lo­cal down-bal­lot can­di­dates. Mr. Bax­ter said the ev­i­dence thus far sug­gests that Mr. Obama would not be a li­a­bil­ity to state and lo­cal races.

“There are no signs he would be dis­as­trous to Democrats in the South. In fact, there could be some statewide races and con­gres­sional races in the South where AfricanAmer­i­can turnout could help Demo­cratic can­di­dates,” Mr. Bax­ter said.

“I don’t think [Mr. Obama] will make any of them bat­tle­ground states, but a heavy African-Amer­i­can turnout and a lack of en­thu­si­asm for John McCain on the part of con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans in the South could make it a closer race in places,” he said.

Mr. Obama did poorly among white Democrats in the South­ern pri­maries against Mrs. Clin­ton.

In Alabama, for ex­am­ple, she won 70 per­cent and 73 per­cent re­spec­tively among white men and women. In Arkansas, she drew 71 per­cent and 85 per­cent; in Mis­sis­sippi, 68 per­cent and 71 per­cent.

“There were clearly warn­ing signs for him in exit polling in North Carolina, where work­ing­class whites voted very strongly for Hil­lary, but were not en­thu­si­as­tic at all for Obama,” added Mr. Bax­ter. “I think North Carolina would be very rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the re­gion.”

Ques­tions about Mr. Obama’s weak­ness among white work­ing­class vot­ers in the af­ter­math of his lop­sided West Vir­ginia de­feat prompted his cam­paign to is­sue a mem­o­ran­dum say­ing it was a “myth” that he “can­not per­form strongly enough among white vot­ers.”

“Obama [. . . ] is run­ning as well or bet­ter than past Demo­cratic can­di­dates among white vot­ers,” not­ing that his share of the white vote was com­pa­ra­ble to Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 con­test against Pres­i­dent Bush, al­though in that race Mr. Kerry failed to carry any South­ern or border state and lost the elec­tion.

“If you con­cede the en­tire South, you have to win two-thirds of the non-South­ern elec­toral votes to win the pres­i­dency, and that’s a tall or­der,” Mr. Ayres said.

Getty Images

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Sen. Barack Obama won a string of South­ern pri­maries but car­ry­ing the South in the gen­eral elec­tion is con­sid­ered a long shot.

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