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Southern Seats Line Road to Majority

The want ad might look something like this: “Seeking a fiery, pro-business, pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights Southern Democrat to run for Congress in a substantially Republican district against a GOP incumbent. A potent populist message is a big plus. Candidates with strong ties to Washington and/or President Barack Obama need not apply.”

For House Democrats to make any headway in winning back seats in the South — and taking back Congress this cycle — they’ll need some responses, and soon.

But even with the best candidates, Democrats face a steep uphill battle in winning back any seats in the South, outside Florida, which is a political and cultural anomaly in the region. The 2010 midterms and retirements appeared to seal the political realignment of the region by wiping out many of the remaining moderate, white Democrats representing culturally conservative territory.

Redistricting, almost exclusively controlled by Republicans now in the region, has also dimmed Democratic prospects in the South. Add to that Republicans’ plans to target the Democrats who held on last cycle in places such as North Carolina, and the difficulty of what Democrats in the South face during the next 17 months becomes clear.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said recently that Democrats have a very good chance of netting the 24 seats needed for Democrats to win back the House next year. But is that feat even possible without regaining territory in the South?

“We’ll win some seats [in the South]. I just think it will be over time,” Alabama-based Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “Whether it’s part of taking back the House in 2012, I don’t know. But if we don’t take it back in 2012, but take it 2014 or 2016, the South is going to be a part of bringing it back because it was last time, and the math, quite frankly, is part of that.”

Anzalone added: “But to say that these seats are gone forever is the same argument people made in 1994” after the GOP wave.

Many of the gains House Democrats made in 2008 and 2006, the year they won the majority, were negated in the 2010 GOP wave. Last cycle, the GOP gained three seats in Tennessee, two seats in Arkansas and Mississippi, and one each in North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.

Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster, said he thinks the party can compete for and reclaim southern seats next year.

“I’m not optimistic of winning back the House. I am optimistic of winning back seats,” he said.

Beattie emphasized candidate recruitment is key. Democrats touted their ability to find candidates who fit the districts as a key aspect to their 2006 and 2008 House gains.

“A generic Democrat isn’t going to win a lot of these seats, but the right kind of Democrat can win them,” he said.

But some observers noted the seats that Democrats lost in 2010 were held for so long by the force of the incumbents’ personalities, which makes taking them back a much tougher prospect.

Pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who is based in Louisiana and has worked for both parties, said Democrats such as ex-Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.) and John Spratt (S.C.) “were able to hold on long after their voters were generally voting Republican because they liked those two individuals.”

And if a lot of the seats were already Republican, redistricting is likely to make them even more safe.

In six state legislatures — North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana — both chambers are controlled by the GOP. And in Arkansas, where Democrats control the Legislature and governor’s mansion, the new lines signed into law might well lead to four Republican districts. The Razorback State’s one Democrat, Rep. Mike Ross, is seen as a top Republican target.

The Congressional redistricting plans in Alabama and Louisiana have been signed into law. In both states, the new lines substantially strengthen vulnerable Republican districts and leave just one strongly Democratic and heavily black district. That end result is also likely in Mississippi and South Carolina.

Still, Democrats think there are pickup opportunities if recruiting holds up. “Democrats have opportunities to make gains across the southern states with strong fiscally responsible candidates who reflect the values of their districts,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Democrats cite Alabama’s 2nd and 5th districts, Arkansas’s 1st and 2nd, and Tennessee’s 4th and 8th as districts they might be able to put in play — although at this point it’s difficult to see any of those districts being competitive.

Given Obama’s showing in those states, any winning candidate in 2012 will have to run well ahead of the top of the ticket next year. Obama was held to just 39 percent of the vote in both Arkansas and Alabama, and he lost Tennessee to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a margin of 15 points. He’s not expected to better his numbers in those states this time around.

Even in the unlikely event Democrats do manage to pick up a handful of seats in South, the GOP sees pickup opportunities in districts that didn’t fall in 2010. National Republicans point to North Carolina Reps. Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, Brad Miller and Heath Shuler as targets in 2012. Along with Ross in Arkansas, they also see Georgia Reps. John Barrow and Sanford Bishop as targets.

Analysts say Democrats will have to be candidates who can tap into the populist sentiment that carried the party to victories in the South for generations.

GOP consultant Brad Todd said Democrats in the South “won in spite of their party’s national liberal leaning because populism was a credible ideology within the Democratic Party. With Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi as the faces of the Democratic Party, populism is not within the Democratic brand.”

But if Democrats face a stiff headwind in the South this election, time is likely on their side.

“Democrats lost their historic base and haven’t been able to build anything to replace it,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “In the short run, it looks pretty bleak for 2012, but in the long run, the Republican Party remains exclusively a party that appeals to white voters and, in a number of southern states, at some point in the future you’re simply not going to have enough white voters to win with.”

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