When Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race last week, Jones became the first Democrat to be elected statewide there since 2006. When he is sworn into the Senate a few weeks from now, he will notice he’s not like the others, since he and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida will be the only two Democrats to represent states in a deep red swath of the Deep South from Texas to North Carolina.
But a combination of the Jones victory, along with a group of unusually promising candidates and a polarizing president in the White House, has Democrats in the South feeling genuinely decent about their chances in the 2018 midterm elections. They’re not exactly whistling Dixie, but they are humming a different tune for once.
Here are the candidates Democratic campaign vets around the South told me they’re most excited about:
Phil Bredesen, Tennessee
Bredesen is a former two-term Tennessee governor who was the mayor of Nashville before that. Now he’s in the race for the Senate seat that Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican incumbent, will vacate when he retires in 2018.
The contest has already drawn GOP Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Stephen Fincher on the Republican side of the race, which Nathan Gonzales rates as Solid Republican, “for now.” But one Democratic veteran told me Bredesen is as good as it gets when it comes to fielding a legitimate competitor for the entire state. “He’s well known. He can do the job. He’s the real deal.” Considering the last Democrat to win statewide in Tennessee was Bredesen himself in 2006, Democrats are hoping he can manage a repeat performance and a rare Senate pick-up in the South.
Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, Georgia
Georgia has never had a female governor, but the top two Democratic candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant governor’s mansion are both women, both former state legislators, both strongly progressive and both named Stacey. But that’s mostly where the similarities end. Stacey Abrams is the better known of the two, as the former Georgia House Minority Leader, a Yale Law graduate and frequent feature in national political profiles. Stacey Evans was little known throughout Georgia before she got into the race, but was quickly endorsed by the state’s last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes.
Abrams, who is African-American, has drawn up plans to run on an unabashedly progressive platform and work to crank up the state’s large minority vote. Evans, who is white, is running a centrist campaign that appeals to the state’s many independents and even moderate suburban Republicans. The winning strategy, which pits the national party’s two wings against each other, will tell Democrats a great deal about what wins primaries in the South. But the general election in the still-Republican state will remain a heavy lift, no matter which Stacey makes it to November.
Beto O’Rourke, Texas
Making Sen. Ted Cruz a one-term senator is a Texas-sized challenge, but boy do Democrats want to try. Leading the charge is one of the favorite faces of progressives across the country, 45-year-old Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The El Paso-born congressman defeated a Democratic incumbent, Rep. Silvester Reyes, in 2012 for his current job on Capitol Hill. He’s expected to have the Democratic primary field mostly to himself in 2018 leading up to the Cruz challenge. If the Doug Jones victory in Alabama didn’t pump up Texas Democrats last Tuesday, O’Rourke followed up with an email pointing out that Donald Trump won Alabama in 2016 by a full 28 points, while Trump only won Texas by nine. Doing the math, O’Rourke says that should make his race a prime pickup target. “Next stop 2018.”
Jim Hood, Mississippi
Hood, the current attorney general of Mississippi, has not said whether he’s planning to run for governor in 2019, when current GOP Gov. Phil Bryant will leave office after two terms. But speculation about whether he will run is already so widespread that a Mississippi columnist has declared Hood “the Democratic gubernatorial Obi-Wan Kenobi — as in, help Jim Hood, you’re the Democrats’ only hope.”
If the idea of a Democrat running Mississippi seems far-fetched, keep in mind that the governor next door in Louisiana, Jon Bel Edwards, is a Democrat and that Hood has already been elected statewide four times, always with north of 55 percent of the vote. And like Doug Jones, Hood’s background as a prosecutor includes convicting a former Klansman of three murders that had remained unsolved for more than 40 years. If Hood were to get into the race, he’d have plenty of support from national Democrats, which may or may not be good news in the Deep South, but that’s another column entirely.
Archie Parnell, South Carolina
Even if you don’t remember his name, you probably remember Archie Parnell’s announcement video for the South Carolina special election to replace former Rep. Mick Mulvaney earlier this year. The video, which spoofed House of Cards (before Kevin Spacey’s recent creepy headlines) helped Parnell break through the Jon Ossoff media mania next door in Georgia, where the race to replace Rep. Tom Price sucked up most of the national attention and Democratic money going into Election Day. Despite spending about 5 percent as much as the Ossoff campaign effort, Parnell quietly came closer to actually beating his Republican opponent, Ralph Norman, who won with 52 percent of the vote. Parnell recently announced he’s going for a rematch against Norman in 2018, which South Carolina Democrats are pointing to as a one of several pick-ups they’re shooting for.
For Democrats, finding candidates willing to run, and then capable of winning, has been more than an uphill climb in recent years. It’s seemed more like scaling the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the rain. At night. But very slowly, the tide in the South for Democrats seems to be turning. Nobody’s talking about a clean sweep, but even having candidates assess their chances and then raise their hands to try is major progress in a part of the country where most Democrats had given up hope. Time will tell if hope leads to change.