Democrats again whistling Dixie after special election wins
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.
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.