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Solid South for the GOP

Republican Congressional leaders, and the Bush-Cheney re-election team, were delighted with the party’s showing in Tuesday’s off-year elections, arguing that the outcome vindicated President Bush and the GOP for their handling of Iraq and the economy.

But Democrats countered that off-year races hold few real clues to what happens the following year, pointing to 2001 as a prime example. They added that state and local concerns, rather than national issues, dominated Tuesday’s results.

As both parties cranked up their spin machines, what was clear is that Democrats may be a long way from bottoming out in the South, and that money, or lack of it, remains a prime indicator of a successful campaign.

A key off-year battleground state, Louisiana, also has yet to be decided. Voters go to the polls in the Bayou State to elect a new governor on Nov. 15, and the outcome there could have an impact in both the House and Senate depending on who emerges victorious. Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco faces former Health and Human Services official Bobby Jindal (R) in the contest to replace outgoing Gov. Mike Foster (R).

There had been widespread speculation that Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) would leave office if Blanco wins, setting off a scramble to fill his seat that could draw in Reps. Chris John (D) and David Vitter (R), among others. Breaux now says he’ll stay in office at least until the end of his current term in 2004.

But even with Louisiana still up in the air, Republicans were claiming victory on Wednesday and predicting further gains in Congress next year.

“They wanted a referendum on Bush and the economy and they got thumped,” crowed National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) of the GOP gubernatorial pickups in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Reynolds added that Democrats don’t have a standard-bearer to carry their message across the South since former President Bill Clinton left office, and suggested that none of the nine Democratic presidential contenders will be able to fill that role either.

“Who speaks for them in the South?” asked Reynolds. “The leadership of their party is too liberal for the region.”

Reynolds and the House GOP leadership hope to pick up as many as seven seats in Texas next year if new districts drawn up by Lone Star State Republicans survive legal challenges, although there seems little room for additional pickups for the NRCC in the South. Republicans will face some tough re-election races in Georgia, especially Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), Alabama and possibly Louisiana if Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) steps down, as is rumored.

For now, Reynolds will have to focus on a late-January or early-February special election in Kentucky’s 6th district following Rep. Ernie Fletcher’s victory in the Bluegrass State gubernatorial race. Fletcher, the first Republican governor in Kentucky in 32 years, is expected to resign on Dec. 8 or 9, and House GOP leaders are already raising money for the special election that will follow five weeks later [see related story, p. 11].

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (R-Va.) said Fletcher’s victory was especially good news for Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and the GOP.

“They were trying to bash what Republicans were doing on tax cuts and the economy and a variety of issues,” said Allen. “The people clearly rejected that approach.”

Republicans now control nine out of 11 governorships across the South, and with open Senate seats in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina to defend in 2004, Democrats face a potential disaster in Dixie next year, according to Allen.

But Allen and Senate Republicans have to defend open seats themselves in Illinois and Oklahoma, and the Alaska Senate race between Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles is expected to be tight. Both the NRSC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have had a tough year raising money and recruiting front-line candidates.

Democratic leaders and party strategists flat out dismissed Tuesday’s results as anything but an anomaly, pointing to different factors behind the GOP wins in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) said the issue of the off-year races never even came up at all during three leadership meetings Wednesday. Matsui pointed out that Democrats won several high-profile governors races in 2001 only to lose seats in both the House and Senate in 2002.

“This has no impact on our ability to win the House back,” said the veteran California Democrat. “This changes nothing.”

Matsui continued to hammer away at two central Democratic themes — 2.7 million job losses since President Bush first came to office in 2001, as well as the White House’s perceived failure to have an “exit strategy” in place for Iraq — as the issues that voters will focus on next year.

Matsui and other Democrats also played up their capture of the New Jersey state Legislature and Mayor John Street’s (D) win in Philadelphia, despite a widely publicized FBI investigation of him.

“[Tuesday’s] results turned on state specific issues and have absolutely no bearing on the 2004 Senate races, especially in the South. They are hardly a bellwether,” DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) said. “We remain very confident about candidates and our prospects in the South.”

Democratic operatives noted that they have strong Senate candidates in both North Carolina and South Carolina. In Florida, Rep. Peter Deutsch (D) is part of a wide open field of candidates vying to replace retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D), though no frontrunner has emerged as yet.

Georgia, where Sen. Zell Miller (D) is stepping down after one term, remains a problem for the party, something top Democrats acknowledge.

Bush administration officials were “quietly exuberant” about the GOP performance on the Tuesday.

“It feels real good, but it’s just the opening round,” said a senior White House staffer on the condition of anonymity. “It will feel a helluva lot better if we’re having the same discussion a year from now.”

Bush made late trips to both Mississippi, where Republican uber-lobbyist Haley Barbour knocked off incumbent Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, and Kentucky. Barbour also received help from Vice President Cheney and other GOP luminaries, and was able to outraise Musgrove by a significant margin.

Barbour, heeding the lessons from his 20 years in Washington, plowed money into a big get-out-the-vote effort, which paid off with an 8-point win at the polls.

“We watched what Haley did very carefully,” said the White House official. “It looks like what will happen on a national scale next year.”

For his part, Fletcher is the latest addition to a growing list of Members who have successfully made the jump to governor in the last few years.

Former Reps. Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.), Bob Riley (R-Ala.), John Baldacci (D-Maine), Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) all won statewide races in 2002. Former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) was elected governor last November and appointed his daughter Lisa to replace him in the Senate.

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