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DCCC Looking South

Special Election Wins Embolden Majority

After Democrats capped off their hat trick of competitive special election victories on Tuesday with a blowout in what had until recently been considered safe Republican territory in Mississippi, party operatives were ready to get out their brushes and repaint the entire Congressional playing field blue.

“If a Democrat can win there, a Democrat can win anywhere,” one Democratic strategist said Wednesday.

Democrats didn’t just win three key special election battles this spring, party operatives said, they broke the back of the Republican Party in its own backyard.

After winning a competitive special election in Illinois in March, Democrats won back-to-back victories in Louisiana and Mississippi in a period of 10 days. The most recent gains were in districts deep in the heart of Dixie where the Republican hegemony in federal elections had, in recent decades, become a fact of life.

“There is no district that is safe for Republican candidates because President Bush’s failed policies have hurt every community in America,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said.

But while the recent Southern state losses are surely a sign of just how far the pendulum has swung against the GOP, they don’t mean that every Republican seat is in play this cycle.

What they might mean is that races with dynamics similar to those that were in play in the special elections might deserve a closer look by Democrats heading into November.

Judging from the results in the recent special elections, those dynamics go beyond the simple standard of how the district votes in presidential elections.

Just look at the 2004 presidential numbers in the Mississippi and Louisiana districts that Republicans lost over the past two weeks. In Mississippi’s 1st district, where Democrat Travis Childers beat Republican Greg Davis by 8 points, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 25 points in 2004. In Louisiana’s 6th district, where now-Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) beat former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) by 3 points earlier this month, Bush beat Kerry by 19 points four years ago.

Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster with the nonpartisan Southern Media & Opinion Research, said two key factors were at play in Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Democrats win in the South in particular situations,” Pinsonat said. “Number one, they have a decent black vote, and number two, the Republicans have fights among themselves or just put up a bad candidate.”

In Louisiana’s 6th district, which is 33 percent black, Republicans have since said that their candidate, Jenkins, was a poor choice to face off against a conservative such as Cazayoux. Jenkins was a controversial figure during his time in the Legislature and he was attacked in his primary campaign for past ties to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Mississippi’s 1st district is a 26 percent black district where Davis and former Tupelo mayor Glenn McCullough (R) engaged in a particularly nasty primary fight that never really healed heading into the special election. Meanwhile, Childers ran as a pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights Democrat who focused on local issues even while Republicans tried to tie him to the liberal wing of the national Democratic Party.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee on the Mississippi race, said that Democrats not only used the racial makeup of the district wisely but also successfully cast their candidate in an ideological mold that has proved successful for them in the past.

“Pro-life, pro-gun Democrats who run races from a local angle, as Travis Childers did, have always been reasonably competitive in a lot of Southern districts,” Ayres said. “And this district … defines the kind of district where Democrats can put together a coalition of African-Americans and about a third of the whites and come up with 50 percent.”

After the results of Mississippi and Louisiana, Congressional Democrats are taking a renewed interest in places such as Louisiana’s Shreveport-area 4th district.

That district, which has a 33 percent black population, is being vacated at the end of this Congress by Rep. Jim McCrery (R). McCrery has endorsed relatively unknown attorney Jeff Thompson (R) in the race, but he’s facing two also mostly unknown Republicans for the nomination. Democrats are likely to nominate Paul Carmouche, a well-known local prosecutor.

If Democrats can avoid a divisive primary battle and bring to bear the party’s vast fundraising resources — which will only be bolstered by the party’s performance in the recent special elections — then the 4th district will present another key Southern opportunity in the same mold as Louisiana’s 6th and Mississippi’s 1st.

Alabama’s open 2nd district could also offer the same dynamic. In the Montgomery-based district with a black population of 29 percent, Rep. Terry Everett (R) announced his retirement plans last fall.

Popular Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright is running as a conservative Democrat much in the same mold as Childers and Cazayoux. Although he contemplated running as a Republican, Bright was courted by Democratic leaders and entered the race as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

Republicans face a potentially divisive primary.

State Sen. Harri Anne Smith, who was endorsed by the Club for Growth, and state Rep. Jay Love appear to be the leading contenders. But TV station executive David Woods and oral surgeon Craig Schmidtke also have thrown their hats into the GOP race. All four candidates are raising large sums of cash, and they’ll need it, because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been talking up Bright’s candidacy and will have money to spare this fall.

Democrats are looking to repeat the success they have had in Mississippi and Louisiana in other Southern seats such as Kentucky’s 2nd district. In that open seat, which is being vacated by Rep. Ron Lewis (R), two conservative Democrats are vying for the nomination in a primary next week that has been surprisingly civil.

One of those candidates, Daviess County Judge/Executive Reid Haire (D), said Wednesday that the victories Democrats have seen in the South during these special elections have less to do with geography and racial makeup of a district and more with a national sense that the country is broken and voters no longer trust Republicans to fix it.

“The message that I’m sending out is a conservative message and it is a message that resonates with voters of the 2nd district probably in the same manner that it resonated in Mississippi for Travis Childers,” Haire said. “It is a Democratic conservatism that has answers and potential solutions, which the Republicans have not been able to offer over the last several years. … It goes way beyond the abortion and the gay marriage and the gun issue.”

With that change theme in mind, Southern Democrats also are looking with renewed interest in places such Virginia’s 2nd district and North Carolina’s 8th district, where two Republican incumbents were nearly toppled by the Democratic wave of 2006.

But Ayres cautioned that Democrats shouldn’t get carried away by the significance of two special elections in the South, especially when their candidates will be on the same ballot as the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama (Ill.).

“The hope for Democrats in the South is to run away from the Democratic Party, and that’s exactly what Travis Childers did,” Ayres said. “And when you have a unique set of circumstances and a Democrat that is running away from what Democrats stand for then, here and there, you are going to get Democratic victories.”

Democrats will have a tougher time doing that in November, Ayres said.

“The South is a Republican stronghold in federal races that get successfully nationalized,” he said. “And nationalizing a race with Barack Obama as the Democratic standard-bearer is going to be one important arrow in the Republican quiver.”

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