For Senate Democrats, Southern Collapse Is Delayed, Not Avoided

Posted June 20, 2003 at 1:58pm

For Senate Democrats, Southern Collapse Is Delayed, Not Avoided Last cycle, much of the action in Senate races took place in the Midwest, with competitive races in Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and Missouri ultimately deciding which party would control the chamber. [IMGCAP(1)]

This cycle, the South is the scene of many of the significant races, and that’s terrible news for the Democrats, who continue to lose ground in a region that once constituted their party’s bedrock.

In addition to Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (D), who has already announced he won’t seek re-election, at least four other Southern Democrats may well retire: Sens. Fritz Hollings (S.C.), John Edwards (N.C.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and John Breaux (La.).

Hollings and Edwards are certain to face very difficult tests even if they decide to run for re-election. Rep. Jim DeMint (R) and former state Attorney General Charlie Condon (R) are already in the South Carolina contest, and Rep. Richard Burr (R) looks to have established himself as the GOP standard-bearer in the Tar Heel State.

Of all the Southern Democratic Senators up in 2004, only Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas now looks reasonably safe. And her vulnerability would increase dramatically if Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) was to signal real interest in challenging her.

How bad is the Democrats’ outlook in the South? If the Republicans win Senate seats in the Carolinas and Georgia next year (all quite possible), they’ll hold all of the U.S. Senate seats in seven contiguous Southern states starting in Virginia and stretching around to Mississippi. Only three states of the Confederacy, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas, would have Democratic Senators.

GOP strength in Dixie isn’t anything new, but just a couple of years ago some Democrats were talking about a comeback. After the 2000 elections, Democrats sat in the top state offices of both Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and party strategists were arguing that the party’s fortunes had bottomed out in the region.

According to that view, Republican gains among white voters allegedly had peaked, and some of those working-class whites who switched to support GOP candidates were now returning to their Democratic roots. Increased black turnout was also expected to result in a Democratic rebound.

But 2002 seemed to disprove that assessment, as voters ousted Democratic governors in South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, as well as a Democratic Senator in Georgia.

Democrats also failed to recapture targeted House seats in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, and the party couldn’t capitalize on open Republican-held Senate seats in North and South Carolina, Tennessee or Texas.

Even the Virginia gubernatorial victory of Mark Warner (D) in 2001, and the election of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and re-election of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) last year couldn’t alter the conclusion that Democratic victories in the region were the exception rather than the rule.

Of course, Democrats are far from conceding defeat in any of this cycle’s Southern contests.

They know that if Breaux runs again, he’s a lock for a fourth Senate term. And they hope that if the seat does come open, Blue Dog Rep. Chris John (D) will be able to retain it. But John could end up facing Rep. David Vitter (R), who is raising his profile for a possible Senate race and would be a formidable general election foe.

Democrats also hope North Carolina proves to be more hospitable for them than some observers assume.

Unsuccessful 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles is preparing to run again if, as expected, Edwards gives up his Senate seat. Bowles’ primary opponent last time, Dan Blue, is also planning another bid, but Democratic insiders are betting Bowles, now an experienced candidate, will prove to be a stronger contender than he was last time. And, they add with relief, he won’t have to face Elizabeth Dole in the general election.

In Georgia, Democrats are hoping that an ideological Republican primary (pitting Rep. Johnny Isakson, who has a more moderate style and reputation, against conservatives Rep. Mac Collins and Herman Cain) divides the GOP and results in a weakened nominee. While the Democratic field has not yet taken shape, party operatives clearly are counting on a strong black turnout to help propel their Senate nominee to victory.

A Democratic victory in the Palmetto State is a long shot, though if Hollings was to run again he would have at least a chance of surviving. Without him, Democrats are trying to recruit a candidate they hope might have unexpected appeal. At this point, those efforts still have a ways to go.

While Democrats hope to woo back Southern white swing voters by pointing to the Bush administration’s failures with the economy, the region’s cultural conservatism, combined with its deeply held patriotism, gives President Bush and the Republican Party important weapons to use against the Democrats.

And Democratic hopes of holding onto the party’s Senate seats in the region could vanish well before next November if national Democrats embrace the liberal label by nominating Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for president.