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Vestiges of Clinton, Gore Influence to Be Tested

As Republicans eye a potential three-seat pickup in Tennessee this fall and the possibility of taking over two House seats and a Senate seat in Arkansas, party strategists are cautiously optimistic that 2010 will be the year that two holdout Southern states are finally brought into the GOP’s fold for good.

On the federal level, Arkansas and Tennessee have defied a trend that saw the rest of the states that made up the former Confederacy shift from Democratic to Republican strongholds. It was a shift that traces its roots to President Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and established the South as the Republican Party’s most reliable voting bloc by the turn of the 21st century.

Arkansas and Tennessee’s resistance to this geographic trend is credited in no small measure to the success and influence of two homegrown Democratic sons: President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas governor, and former Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessee Congressman and Senator.

But a decade after Clinton and Gore left the White House, Republican strategists believe their influence has faded enough to allow for a realignment in both states in a cycle where the political environment has tilted so heavily in the GOP’s favor.

Democrats are keenly aware of the threat of a Republican takeover in the region.

“There’s always been a fear [of] are we one election cycle away from being the next Alabama,” one Arkansas Democratic operative said recently.

But if the flip does happen this cycle in Tennessee and Arkansas, it will happen in two different ways.

In Tennessee, the change seems to be coming from the bottom up.

When it comes to high-profile races in the Volunteer State, a Democrat currently resides in the governor’s mansion, and the party has managed to hold the line in House races in middle and western Tennessee. And while Gore may have faded from the national stage more than Clinton has, even Republicans admit that the financial structure he created in the state has been a benefit that has continued to buoy Democrats.

Still, Republicans have managed to secure a stranglehold on the state’s eastern House districts and control both of the state’s Senate seats. This year, the GOP is favored to win back control of the governorship.

One place where Democrats have been unable to check Republican advances in recent years is in the state House and state Senate.

Even as Democrats were busy winning wave elections on the national level in 2006 and 2008, Tennessee Republicans were making steady gains in the state Legislature. In 2008, Republicans won majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in 140 years.

“The switch in Tennessee has been coming,” said Chris Perkins, vice president of the Republican political firm Wilson Research Strategies. “We have been watching that coming. In Democratic years, we’ve been gaining seats at the local level. … It was just a matter of time before it hit the Congressional level.”

Perkins said that the retirements of veteran Democratic Reps. Bart Gordon and John Tanner in the 6th and 8th districts have removed two major obstacles that helped hold the Republican wave at bay in Tennessee.

The 6th district, which is all but certain to flip in November, is particularly symbolic because it’s also the seat that was once held by Gore. This cycle, national Democrats aren’t trying to protect the 6th, which includes the suburban Nashville counties that are among the fastest-growing Republican areas of the state.

A record 80,000 Republicans voted in the competitive 6th district GOP primary earlier this month. Smith County, which was Gore’s home county, had just under 2,400 Republicans come out for this year’s primary. In 2006, in a competitive Senate primary in the last non-presidential year, just under 1,700 Republicans came out in Smith County.

While the loss of the 6th is a foregone conclusion, state and national Democrats are doing everything they can to make their stand in Tanner’s 8th district, where well-funded Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron is taking on highly touted GOP recruit Stephen Fincher.

Republicans are hoping that if the wave does come, it might even sweep out Rep. Lincoln Davis (D), whose middle Tennessee 4th district has so far been a second-tier race.

In Arkansas, a Republican flip will have to come from the top down.

The Natural State GOP hasn’t had the success making inroads at the state or federal level as the party has in Tennessee. Republicans are outnumbered by about a 3-to-1 margin in both the state House and state Senate, while Rep. John Boozman is the sole Republican in the Congressional delegation.

But the retirements of Democratic Reps. Marion Berry and Vic Snyder in the 1st and 2nd districts have presented two ripe possibilities in conservative territory, and Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln appears to be one of the most endangered Senators of the cycle.

Republicans believe that if there was ever a time to win over a conservative state such as Arkansas, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried with 59 percent of the vote in 2008, it’s 2010.

“In Arkansas you’ve got basically a one-party state and it’s comprised of conservative Democrats and more conservative Democrats, so the social issues don’t play like they might in other states,” said GOP consultant Chris Battle, who has worked extensively in Arkansas.

But, he added, Arkansas voters are watching “a liberal agenda coming out of Washington that has not been seen in a generation,” and Democratic Members are having a hard time separating themselves from it.

Republicans point to the national party’s increasingly liberal brand as a main reason why Snyder and Berry decided to head for the door and why Lincoln has found herself behind in polls for almost the entire cycle.

The Democratic brand in Arkansas “is no longer defined by the Clintons. There is a competing, more polarizing force,” said national GOP political consultant Brad Todd, who is based in Tennessee. “Average voters have to confront the fact that being a Democrat means something different than what it meant in their youth.”

Still, it would be foolish to count out the role Clinton can, and likely will, play in his home state this fall. He’s already proved that he can be a political force in high-profile races such as Pennsylvania’s 12th district special election this spring and in Lincoln’s hotly contested primary.

“I think he still has influence, but I don’t think even Clinton has the kind of juice it would take to overcome the hostility Arkansans have toward the Obama agenda,” Battle said.

But Robert McLarty, a Democratic consultant based in Arkansas, said last week that Democrats have been successful in developing their own brand in Arkansas and that it will be strong enough to defy the national trend this year.

Popular Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is also on the ballot this fall and is heavily favored to win a second term. Beebe, along with Clinton, “is going to play a crucial role in continuing to get the message out that we are Arkansas Democrats, we’ve had a different track record than some of the stuff that‘s going on in Washington, and I think that message will resonate with independent votes and I think they’ll come back home,” McLarty said.

“I think the Republicans are seeing some internals that show generic head to heads that are going to build up false positives, and I think we’re going to be able to turn that back by the time November gets here.”

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