Analysis: The Senate Part III -The South

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst   |   Sept. 21, 2002 at 6:06 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- The South is the linchpin of the nation's politics. For close to 50 years, the Democrats' lock on this critical region provided the backbone of their record congressional majorities. The most conservative region of the country moved into the GOP column as the Democrats' FDR coalition collapsed, and the ideological divide between the two parties has grown wider.

In 1980 it was a key component of Ronald Reagan's presidential victory and the GOP's successful takeover of the Senate for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower. A single bad election in the South for the Republicans in 1986 wiped that majority out. Of the 34 Senate seats up in 2002, 13 are in the South and almost half are not competitive.

For the 40 years the Democrats controlled the Congress, between Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, the South generally was a one-party system. The 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign began the process of moving southern states out of the Democratic base at the presidential level. By the mid-'80s, political analysts of all stripes widely assumed the GOP had put "a lock" on the South, something Clinton and Al Gore laid to rest almost as quickly as the idea of the Republican lock became conventional wisdom.

In five of the states that are likely not to have competitive Senate races, the incumbent is a Republican. Only in West Virginia, where Jay Rockefeller is seeking a fourth term, do the Democrats have a safe seat.

Alabama's Jefferson Sessions, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, Mississippi's Thad Cochran, Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe and Virginia's John Warner are all likely to win re-election in the fall. Warner and Cochran are unopposed. Sessions faces off against State Auditor Susan Parker, who most experts do not give a chance of beating the first-term Republican.

Kentucky's McConnell has been a target of liberals since he was first elected in 1984, the only Republican to defeat an incumbent Democrat in the year Reagan won 49 states in his race for re-election. Democrats had high hopes for Lois Combs-Weinberg, daughter of former Gov. Bert Combs, but those hopes have faded since she was only able to win the Senate primary by approximately 1,000 votes against one-term former U.S. Rep. Tom Barlow -- who spent virtually no money on the race.

Inhofe might have had a tough race for re-election until former Oklahoma Gov. David Walters emerged as the winner of the Democrat's post-primary runoff election. As his term as governor ended, Walters was indicted on felony charges arising from an investigation into campaign fundraising. He ended the case with a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of accepting excess contributions and paid a fine. He opted not to fight the charges to protect his family, but the incident nevertheless means he starts the campaign on the defensive.

Inhofe leads in the polls, though he is sometimes shown at below 50 percent -- a danger signal for any incumbent. In the 2000 presidential election George W. Bush won Oklahoma by 22 points, so this race is likely not to develop into a serious challenge to the incumbent.

There are five races in the cycle in the South that that may develop into real contests: Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina and Tennessee.

In Georgia, one-term incumbent Democrat Sen. Max Cleland is pitted against U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, the Republican. Chambliss earned a convincing win in the party primary against former state House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, but he is not expected to have an easy time winning election in a state that seems very much to want to be Republican but cannot quite seem to figure out how to do it.

Cleland is a war hero and former state secretary of state. He was first elected to the Senate in 1996 with 49 percent of the vote. His victory was due in large part to an overwhelming turnout of black voters in Cobb and DeKalb counties in and around the city of Atlanta. One of the driving forces behind that turnout was the political machine of U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, recently defeated in her bid for renomination. If McKinney's people decide to stay home out of anger at her loss, it will be much tougher for Cleland.

If, on the other hand, they conclude that it was the Republicans who were responsible for McKinney's defeat, they are likely to once again turn out in large numbers and hand Chambliss the loss. Bush won Georgia in 2000 with 55 percent of the vote, a substantial improvement over Bob Dole's 47 percent win in a three-way race in 1996. This is a race that is going to take some time to develop.

In Louisiana, the Republicans are pursuing a runoff strategy. There are nine candidates in the race, all of whom are on the primary ballot against each other in November. If no single candidate polls over 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to a December runoff.

The Republicans are banking on their ability to force first-term Democrat Mary Landrieu into a runoff, intending to get behind whichever of three Republicans -- State Election Commissioner Suzanne Terrill, state Rep. Tony Perkins, or U.S. Rep. John Cooksey -- get into the runoff with her. Cooksey, whose campaign was badly damaged by racist comments he made about Muslims in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has the support of the state's GOP governor, Mike Foster.

Perkins has the support of the state's social conservatives, who are ardent fans since he authored the state's covenant marriage law that makes it harder for couples who enter in a state-endorsed covenant marriage contract to divorce. Terrill, who is from Landrieu's New Orleans political base, has been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is pumping money into the state on her behalf.

In North Carolina, former Republican cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole, wife of the former GOP presidential candidate and Senate leader Bob Dole, is pitted against former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Neither campaign will lack for money. Bush carried the state in 2000 with 57 percent of the vote but the Democrats do very well here at the state level.

The race will inevitably tighten. Neither campaign will lack for money; Bowles is independently wealthy while Dole has a national network of fundraising contacts upon which she can call for funds. The challenge Dole must overcome is that, save for Jesse Helms, the GOP never has won a Senate seat in a mid-term election. Helms was first elected in 1972 as Richard Nixon was carrying the state by a landslide. Dole, who is the acknowledged frontrunner, will have to win the race without a strong presidential candidate to carry her across the finish line. One thing that should be encouraging to the Democrats is that the state's other Senate seat, currently held by Democrat John Edwards, has changed hands in every election since 1976.

As a prospective presidential candidate, Edwards has a vested interest in doing all that he can to help Bowles win. It will not be helpful to his presidential aspirations to face members of his own party and have to confess to them he could not help the party carry an open seat in his home state.

Republicans believe they have a lock on the South Carolina seat of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, who is an institution in American politics. The GOP has nominated U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham to carry their banner. Graham had no opposition in the GOP primary, something that should be considered remarkable given that the Republicans hold most of the significant statewide elected offices.

Graham was co-chairman of Sen. John McCain's Republican presidential campaign in 2002 and, while he appears not to have been tainted by the state's bruising presidential primary, he is seen in some circles as a maverick reformer in the McCain mold which could cause him some trouble if the Democrat, former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders, starts to catch on with voters.

Tennessee is another state where the GOP should be able to hold on to an open seat. Sen. Fred Thompson is retiring and the Republicans have nominated former governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to replace him. The Democrats have put up U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat from Nashville. A recent poll of registered voters had Alexander 45 percent to 27 percent over Clement.

It should be a good sign for Alexander that Bush carried the state against native son and political legacy Al Gore in the presidential election. But Alexander has not been on the ballot in Tennessee for more than 15 years and the outgoing Republican governor, former U.S. Rep. Don Sundquist, has badly damaged the party's reputation by repeatedly trying to force a state income tax through the Democrat-controlled state legislature. Sundquist has been rebuffed each time but there is growing disgust among the state's voters with the Republicans because of such an obvious repudiation of what had been the party's central issue nationwide. Whether Alexander is damaged because of Sundquist's support for the state income tax has yet to be seen but it is a real possibility.

One year ago, no one could have seriously expected Texas, the president's home state, to be on the verge of sending a Democrat to the Senate. But the race between former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a Democrat, and state Attorney General John Cornyn has been surprisingly close. Prior to September, Kirk had been seen as running a competitive race against Cornyn, who has been criticized for running a lack-luster and unfocused campaign.

A new University of Houston/Rice University poll of more than 1,000 registered voters shows Cornyn starting to open a lead against Kirk. Cornyn was the choice of 37 percent of respondents versus Kirk, who won the support of 31 percent of those surveyed. Kirk has come under fire in recent weeks for his opposition to the nomination of Texas state Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owens to a seat on the federal bench and for his suggestion that the talk of war against Iraq was because the soldiers who would be called to the frontlines would be "disproportionately minorit(ies)." In his remarks for which he has been criticized, Kirk asked how Republicans would feel about a war with Iraq if "the next time we go to war, the first 500,000 kids have to come from families who earn $1 million or more." In a state like Texas, verbal missteps like that often spell the beginning of the end in statewide campaigns.

If there is one state where the Republicans are concerned, it is Arkansas. The GOP incumbent, Tim Hutchinson, was first elected in 1996 -- the first Republican from the state sent to the Senate since Reconstruction -- at the same time Bill Clinton was carrying the state for re-election. Shortly after his election, however, Hutchinson, who was strongly supported by religious conservatives, divorced his wife of many years and married a former staffer. This news hit his campaign like a ton of bricks and his numbers dropped precipitously.

The Democrats have nominated state Attorney General Mark Pryor, the son of former governor and senator David Pryor. Pryor has only been attorney general since 1998 and his principal qualification for Senate is, state Republicans say, his last name. The key question here is whether Arkansas voters prefer a man who may not have been what he seemed in his first campaign for the Senate or a political lightweight to represent them.

Hutchinson has complied a good record on constituent service issues, something many first-term senators neglect, and had always planned on a tough race for re-election. It was once rumored that former President Bill Clinton might oppose him. That didn't happen. Pryor has the contacts necessary in the state and in Washington to be a serious candidate. The ads in the race have been nasty and there is no sign of a letup anytime in the future. This race likely goes down to the wire -- but if there was ever a Senate race this cycle the Republicans wanted decided based on national issues and the president's popularity, this is it.

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