Election 2008

southern voting, Barack Obama, winning the south
Steve Helber/AP
Virginia Democratic senatorial candidate, Mark Warner, left, speaks while Democratic
presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., listens during a town hall meeting in
Martinsville, Va.

Economics and Incumbent Frustration Provide Dems with Southern Strategy

October 14, 2008 06:00 PM
by Christopher Coats
A damaged party brand and an economic downturn spell trouble for incumbent Southern Republicans, as Democrats seek to reverse a longstanding trend.

Reversing a Southern Trend

According to legend, after signing the Civil Rights Bill into law in 1964, then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson leaned over to an aide and remarked that he had just lost the South to the Republicans for a generation.

Nearly 45 years later, that generation is showing signs of passing as Democrats seek to reshape the electoral map with a series of close races in states that have not voted against a Republican in decades.

Bolstered by widespread voter registration campaigns and a general frustration with the economy, traditional GOP strongholds such as North Carolina and West Virginia are showing signs of lurching left.

Since January, Democrats have registered 245,000 new members in North Carolina compared to the Republicans’ 46,000.

While absolute victories are still far from certain, and blowouts in states such as Kentucky and Mississippi are likely, tight races up and down the ballot suggest that the Republican monopoly on the South is loosening.

Several southern states have begun to move away from the Republican party as Democratic candidates have successfully linked their opponents to a deeply unpopular sitting president and tapped into concrete economic issues, rather than focusing on social differences.

President George W. Bush’s approval ratings have seen a steady decline since 2003 and have rarely risen above 35 percent in the last two years, making it more difficult for Republican candidates to run.

According to Bob Moser, who wrote the book, “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority,” this approach to tangible economic issues is especially relevant in the South, where rates of poverty remain the highest.

Moser contends that past obstacles to Democrats, such as monetary and organizational deficits, have been overcome with a strategy that pays attention to states usually left to the Republicans with little or no protest.

Still, while few believe the Democrats will win a majority of southern states, certain state and national contests have caused several Republicans some concern.

In North Carolina, the party has all but written off the campaign of one-term Senator Elizabeth Dole after polls started shifting dramatically toward her Democratic opponent Kay Hagan late in the summer.

While McCain still remains ahead in the state, poll numbers have brought his campaign to parts of the state not thought vulnerable until this year.
In nearby Virginia, following a 2006 win by Jim Webb, the state could see a second Democratic senator with a likely win by former governor Mark Warner, who holds a commanding lead of about 20 percent.

More surprising, neighboring West Virginia shows a virtual dead heat between Obama and Arizona senator John McCain, in a state that has not voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In Georgia, which will most likely support McCain in the presidential election, incumbent U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss has seen his double-digit lead evaporate as Democratic opponent Jim Martin has risen to within a few points of tying the race.

Opinion & Analysis: A shift in attitude

As adviser to Mark Warner, Sen. Jim Webb and John Edwards, Virginia’s David “Mudcat” Saunders etched out a strategy for Democratic victories earlier this year by saying that in order to win in the south, the party must avoid any perception of “condescension” toward voters south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Looking back at the national elections in 2000 and 2004, when George W. Bush virtually swept the south, critics such as Thomas Schaller argue that a Democratic taking of the South is very unlikely.

Reaction: Picking their fights

Still, the close poll numbers and threat of a veto-proof Senate, with Democrats occupying 60 seats, has sent the national Republican Party in search of additional funds for congressional races across the country, including North Carolina, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi, Alaska, Oregon and Georgia.

This week, Politico reported that the Republican National Committee was considering tapping into a $5 million line of credit to fund advertisements in close congressional races.

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