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Friday, November 10, 2006

The Building Blocks of a New Southern Strategy?

Jim Marshall, Heath Shuler and Jim Webb are models for a new two party South

Being a Democrat in the South has been downright dangerous since the landslide election of 1994. In that election, while a Southern Democrat occupied the White House, several Democratic incumbent House members in the South were turned out from office and their seats were never to return to the Democratic fold.

Democratic House members from the South prior to 1992 had a tricky balancing act. They had to vote with their party a decent amount of time to curry favor for choice committee assignments and to satisfy African-American constituents at the same time as voting far enough to the right to satisfy white conservatives back home. Many of these moderate Democrats survived election and after election when the national Democratic party was being routed on a presidential level in their districts.

When Bill Clinton became President in 1992, he carried with him the hopes of moderate Democrats throughout the South. However, his election proved to be the ending of an era. The combination of redistricting to maximize minority access districts and the lack of popularity Clinton enjoyed in 1994 (and the loyalty many southern Democrats in Congress had to show him) ushered in a new Republican majority.

While the Democrats have had some success in South since 1994, most notably in 1998 when several Democratic governors were elected (all were defeated for re-election four years later) the region has for the most part become the backbone of the GOP's majority status in Congressional and Presidential politics. Little by little, the Congressional seats that survived 1994 in Democratic hands flipped, to where entering the 2006 elections Democrats held less than 20% of the regions white majority districts.

Tuesday did not bring major gains for the Democrats in the region, but did have some very notable victories which give us a playbook as to how Democrats can survive in the South for years to come.

Jim Marshall, a Georgia Congressman was targeted for defeat by the RNC when they worked with the Georgia Legislature to redraw his district and wooed former arch-conservative Congressman Mac Collins who represented the area from 1992-2002 to run for the seat. Marshall combined strong local roots with an activist approach to defense and military issues to stave off defeat by a 51-49 margin in a very unfavorable district. Military issues are the bread and butter of the South. Thanks in large measure to Southern control of Congressional committees from the 1940 thru the present, the South has a disproportionate amount of military bases and servicemen.

Heath Shuler is best known as a Heisman Trophy runner up when he quarterbacked the Tennessee Volunteers in the early 1990s. Now Shuler is heading to Congress at the ripe young age of 34 as a Democrat espousing what he calls "mountain values." Shuler is a conservative, no doubt on social issues but that didn't prevent him from running for Congress as a Democrat in his home state of North Carolina. That's because Shuler combines social conservatism with principled opposition to the Iraq War and Economic populism, something Democrats used to stand for in the South.

Shuler knocked off eight term Republican incumbent Charles Taylor. Taylor had been targeted before by national Democrats, but in the past he was always able to link his opponents to the unpopular national leadership of the party. This time however, Shuler ran an aggressive campaign that hit on local themes and pre-empted any attempt to link him with the liberal Democratic leadership in Washington. Shuler won by eight points Election Day.

Jim Webb left the Democratic Party in the 1970s over his feeling that the party had been overrun by those who opposed the Vietnam War and were anti-military. Webb, a decorated Vietnam Veteran became Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. In late 2002, Webb wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post describing the potential military invasion of Iraq as "a blunder that history will not look upon kindly," and urged the President and his party to seek another solution to the crisis. Webb, who had endorsed and campaigned for for Republican Senator George Allen in 2000 when he defeated Democrat Chuck Robb (who like Webb and unlike Allen, or Bush had fought in Vietnam) traveled to Capitol Hill to meet Allen and other Congressional leaders. At the meetings the Republican leadership spoke in unison about the need to support the President and party. Webb felt that despite his conservatism on domestic and military issues, he could not remain in a party that went to war for the sake of going to war. Moreover, Webb like Shuler is an economic populist whose views on the proper role of government fit more with the Democratic party's philosphy then that of the anti government Republicans.

Webb, again became in Democrat and in early 2006 decided to challenge Allen for re-election. The Democratic party of Virginia had a party regular in the race named Harris Miller. Miller was running a typical Democratic campaign while Webb corralled grassroots opposition to the war and stunned the party establishment with a primary victory. Webb then ran an aggressive campaign, largely on the Iraq War versus Allen whose numerous and now infamous gaffes certainly helped Webb. But Webb did not win simply because Allen called an Indian Webb worker "maccaca" or because he showed utter contempt for his Jewish heritage or because he used the N-word years back. Webb won because he showed how a principled military man, in a state dominated by the military can oppose the war in Iraq while embracing our troops, our commanders and our ideals as a nation. Jim Webb proved you can oppose the war and yet be tough on terror.

The last decade has proven that national Democrats have little chance of winning Southern Congressional seats. During the same time, we've learned it is difficult to attain a majority in either the electoral college for President or in either chamber of Congress without some victories in the South. Jim Marshall, Heath Shuler, and Jim Webb all have contributed to the playbook on how Democrats can win in the South and thus control national politics.


Joe said...

Nice article. Perhaps we can parlay Heath Shuler's celebrity into some success throughout the South.

Ken said...

long time no hear from. My number is still the same. The Bishop of Boca Requests an audience. I am working on some new plans. Sid has already reiocated to Orlando and is ready to do some field work. Call me.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.