Sweet (Now) Home Alabama

Posted May 14, 2008 at 11:07am

Sweet (Now) Home Alabama. Democratic pollster John Anzalone has had a good May.

[IMGCAP(1)]Rep.-elect Travis Childers (D-Miss.) and newly elected Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) are both clients of his, and each won a special election in what had been strong Republican districts in a part of the Deep South that had long been off-limits to Democrats running for federal office.

Childers, the Prentiss County Chancery Clerk, defeated Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) on Tuesday in Mississippi’s 1st district, which delivered 62 percent of its vote to President Bush in 2004. Cazayoux, then a state Representative, beat former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) on May 3 in Louisiana’s 6th district, a 59-percent Bush district.

Anzalone, the founding partner of the Montgomery, Ala., firm Anzalone Liszt Research, credited his success mostly to his clients, including Reps. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who both represent districts that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. But he said it doesn’t hurt that he and his partner, Jeff Liszt, live and work and play among the very voters a majority of their candidates are courting.

“I’m a better pollster because I’m not in D.C.,” Anzalone said Wednesday during a telephone interview. “I understand these voters because I live with them every day.”

Over the past few years, Anzalone has become the go-to pollster for Democratic candidates running in Republican-leaning Southern House districts. He helped Shuler oust incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor (R) in North Carolina’s 11th district in 2006, and in 2004 helped Melancon win Louisiana’s 3rd district, which at the time was a Republican-held open seat.

But ironically, Anzalone is not a native Southerner.

Anzalone, 44, grew up in St. Joseph, Mich., a town of about 8,500 in the southwestern part of the state, across Lake Michigan from Chicago. He attended Kalamazoo College and ended up in politics, including an eight-year period where he alternated between Washington, D.C., and living out of his suitcase on the campaign trail.

One of Anzalone’s early bosses was Democratic consultant James Carville. He also served as the political director for Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) 1988 re-election bid.

In 1994, the same year Republicans were swept into power on Capitol Hill and won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Anzalone moved to Montgomery.

To hear him describe it, it wasn’t some

shrewd business move, but rather a purely personal decision. He wanted to live near his two sons, who were living with his ex-wife, an Alabama native (Anzalone has since remarried).

Anzalone said living in the South and running his business there have been keys to his success, helping him understand what it would take for Democrats to be successful there and how to best guide his candidates in their races against Republicans.

Anzalone said losing races during those years when Democrats couldn’t buy a victory in the South was a valuable experience.

“Getting your ass kicked for a decade, you learn a lot of things,” he said.

There is no “magic equation” behind his success, Anzalone said. For Democrats to win in the South in what has been solid Republican territory, they need to be a good fit for the voters. That often means holding pro-Second Amendment, anti-abortion rights and anti-same-sex-marriage positions.

Cazayoux and Childers both ran as conservative Democrats, and Anzalone said most of the positive press he’s getting really belongs to them, in addition to the other victorious Democrats he’s worked for in recent years.

In Mississippi, Childers highlighted what he stood for, as opposed to what he was against, Anzalone said, adding that he ran a local race that focused on issues voters were concerned about. The Republicans, by contrast, tried to run a national race tying Childers to national liberal Democrats.

“It’s a credit to the candidate,” Anzalone said of Childers in particular. “We had the strategic upper hand.”

Brian Wolff, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Anzalone deserves a lot of the credit — for the success of Cazayoux, Childers and many of his other clients.

Wolff described Anzalone as a pollster who is available “24/7,” whether to work with a candidate or do anything else to further the success of a campaign. He said Anzalone has a talent for helping candidates find their voice and channeling that voice into a message that works with the voters.

“Our candidates stayed on message, and that’s John’s work,” Wolff said.

Last cycle, Anzalone helped shepherd now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) across the finish line in first place, and did the same for Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Paul Hodes (N.H.) and Ron Klein (Fla.), all of whom ousted Republican incumbents.

With this month’s special election victories of Cazayoux and Childers under his belt, Anzalone now turns his attention to clients running in targeted November races.

State Sen. Kay Hagan, challenging Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in North Carolina, is among his stable of 2008 Democratic candidates, as is Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright, who is running for Alabama’s open 2nd district seat; state Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who is running for New Jersey’s open 7th district seat; state Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, who is running for Illinois’ open 11th district seat; and 2006 nominee Larry Kissell, who is again challenging Rep. Robin Hayes (R) in North Carolina’s 8th.

Anzalone also continues to advise incumbent Democratic Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa) and John Salazar (Colo.).

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