Democrats Evaluate South After Tuesday Losses

July 7, 2008 - 8:30 PM

(CNSNews.com) - GOP wins in Tuesday's Kentucky and Mississippi governor's races put added pressure on Democrats to show viability in the South, with all eyes on Louisiana's Nov. 16 runoff and, looking ahead, next year's presidential election.

Compounding the challenge for Democrats is the fact that four Senate Democrats - Bob Graham of Florida, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina, Zell Miller of Georgia and John Edwards of North Carolina - have decided not to seek re-election. Louisiana Democrat John Breaux has said he, too, is considering retiring.

This week, Republicans wrested the Kentucky governor's seat from 32 years of Democratic control and likewise took Mississippi out of Democratic hands, building on 2002 GOP upsets in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

The Louisiana governor's seat is already in GOP control, though next week's runoff between Bobby Jindal and Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco remains too close to call.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe had declared the Mississippi race, won by former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour, a referendum on President Bush.

And Georgia's Democrat Zell Miller, who's retiring from his Senate seat, warned that Democrats won't win the presidency if they can't carry any southern states.

"The age of the white southern Democrat has come to a close, and this is another sign of that," said Steve Moore, president of the Club for Growth, which helps fund free market candidacies.

"There's no question Bush was a big winner when it comes to these governor's races because he put his reputation on the line," Moore added. "And the Democrats tried to run against these 'Washington Republicans' that are tied to Bush, and that backfired."

In next year's presidential race, Democrats will have to win all the battleground states to offset Republican wins in the South, Moore predicts.

"If they start by losing Florida and Texas and then they're losing all the other southern states, it's just very difficult for them...to win every close state," said Moore, namely Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia.

"Yesterday, the South's hue became more deeply 'Bush Red,'" said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "Should Louisiana go GOP on Nov. 15, it will turn redder still.

"Bush was already going to carry Kentucky and Mississippi in '04," Sabato continued, "but the Nov. 4 elections demonstrated just how firm Bush's base in the South is. Even a bad economy and deep worries about Iraq could give the Democrats no traction."

But Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council warns against counting Democrats out in the South.

"The South is a competitive two-party region," Kilgore said. "Saying that there's a decisive, irreversible Republican trend this year or last year doesn't make any more sense than saying [that was the case for Democrats] in 1998, when we won most of the gubernatorial races."

By Kilgore's count, of all southern governor's races since 1998, in 15 out of 23 cases, the incumbent party lost. That, he argues, is a more important trend.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, has labeled this year's election results a "mixed bag" since Democrats faired well in New Jersey state legislative races, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Philadelphia mayoral election and a GOP ballot question in New York.

"It was a terrible election for Republicans everywhere else," Moore concurred.

But the bottom line, McAuliffe said after the election results were in, is that "you shouldn't extrapolate too much out of yesterday's elections."

Listen to audio for this story.

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.