“A generic Democrat isn’t going to win a lot of these seats, but the right kind of Democrat can win them,” he said.
But some observers noted the seats that Democrats lost in 2010 were held for so long by the force of the incumbents’ personalities, which makes taking them back a much tougher prospect.
Pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who is based in Louisiana and has worked for both parties, said Democrats such as ex-Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.) and John Spratt (S.C.) “were able to hold on long after their voters were generally voting Republican because they liked those two individuals.”
And if a lot of the seats were already Republican, redistricting is likely to make them even more safe.
In six state legislatures — North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana — both chambers are controlled by the GOP. And in Arkansas, where Democrats control the Legislature and governor’s mansion, the new lines signed into law might well lead to four Republican districts. The Razorback State’s one Democrat, Rep. Mike Ross, is seen as a top Republican target.
The Congressional redistricting plans in Alabama and Louisiana have been signed into law. In both states, the new lines substantially strengthen vulnerable Republican districts and leave just one strongly Democratic and heavily black district. That end result is also likely in Mississippi and South Carolina.
Still, Democrats think there are pickup opportunities if recruiting holds up. “Democrats have opportunities to make gains across the southern states with strong fiscally responsible candidates who reflect the values of their districts,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Democrats cite Alabama’s 2nd and 5th districts, Arkansas’s 1st and 2nd, and Tennessee’s 4th and 8th as districts they might be able to put in play — although at this point it’s difficult to see any of those districts being competitive.
Given Obama’s showing in those states, any winning candidate in 2012 will have to run well ahead of the top of the ticket next year. Obama was held to just 39 percent of the vote in both Arkansas and Alabama, and he lost Tennessee to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a margin of 15 points. He’s not expected to better his numbers in those states this time around.
Even in the unlikely event Democrats do manage to pick up a handful of seats in South, the GOP sees pickup opportunities in districts that didn’t fall in 2010. National Republicans point to North Carolina Reps. Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, Brad Miller and Heath Shuler as targets in 2012. Along with Ross in Arkansas, they also see Georgia Reps. John Barrow and Sanford Bishop as targets.
Analysts say Democrats will have to be candidates who can tap into the populist sentiment that carried the party to victories in the South for generations.
GOP consultant Brad Todd said Democrats in the South “won in spite of their party’s national liberal leaning because populism was a credible ideology within the Democratic Party. With Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi as the faces of the Democratic Party, populism is not within the Democratic brand.”
But if Democrats face a stiff headwind in the South this election, time is likely on their side.