Analysis: Dems 2002 -- Southern disaster

By PATRICK REDDY  |  Nov. 18, 2002 at 12:48 AM
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SACRAMENTO, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- The conventional wisdom about the 2002 midterm election was that it went badly for the Democrats who boldly predicted -- along with this writer-- that they would take both houses of Congress and a majority of governorships.

Very much the opposite happened: The Republicans easily held their majority in the House of Representatives and regained the United States Senate majority they lost in 2001 when Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords left the party.

In gubernatorial races, not a single elected Republican incumbent lost and Republicans won a narrow majority of all governors. The end result was that Republicans control the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government for the first time since Herbert Hoover won in 1928.

The media's favorite descriptions of the Democratic performance in 2002 were "disaster, debacle and catastrophe." That is partially an overstatement: Democrats lost a few House seats in the North and West mostly due to Republican gerrymandering, and the U.S. Senate races along the Northern tier were quite close. However, what is true is that Democrats suffered a defeat in the South that may take years to come back from.

Earlier this fall, I compared 2002 to two other years: 1990, when the first President Bush dealt with the first Iraq crisis; and 1962, when the Democrats did much better than expected under President Kennedy, actually gaining three Senate seats in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Democratic opposition made very modest gains in 1990, while President Bush's Republicans in 2002 produced astonishingly unexpected victories, marking the first time since 1934 that an incumbent president's party won more seats in both houses of Congress.

(The post-World War II average losses have been 27 seats in the House and four in the Senate. Since the president's party has gained seats twice in a row now, which is unprecedented, we'll have to revise our electoral expectations).

With just a few local races facing either recounts or a run-off, Republicans added to their majority in the House with at least five new seats and took back the Senate with a minimum gain of two seats. So the proper comparisons turned out to be both 1962 and 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was nearing the peak of his popularity.

While the GOP wins in various states were very narrow (a switch of 50,000 votes in Minnesota, Missouri and New Hampshire would keep the Senate Democratic), the fact is, in an evenly divided country, any victory that leads to a new majority will have greatly amplified political and policy significance. The Bush tax cuts will likely be extended, most Bush judicial appointees will now be confirmed and oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness may now go forward.

As of late October, I wrote that, "so far, no strong tail wind has yet developed for either side." In the final weekend of Nov. 2-3, the Gallup Poll picked up a surge of support for Republican candidates, giving the GOP a 51 percent to 45 percent lead. I foolishly discounted this poll, mistakenly believing that President Bush could not transfer his personal popularity to local Republicans. (Nationally, GOP candidates for the House won about 52 percent. Gallup also picked up Gore's late rally in 2000; the lesson here is to trust Gallup in 2004.)

It was written that the election was a choice between the crunch of the Bush foreign policy rhetoric and the sogginess of Democratic complaints on the economy. In this case, the president's last-minute whirlwind campaign swing through 20 states made sure that crunch was king in the absence of any compelling Democratic message.

The same Nov. 3 Gallup Poll gave Bush a 63 percent job approval rating and a few days after the election, that figure rose to 68 percent. To revisit the Kennedy parallel, George W. Bush has had the most consistently high ratings since JFK in 1961-2. As Bill Schneider and Jeff Greenfield of CNN repeatedly commented on Election Night: This president has coattails after Sept. 11, 2001.

This election is reminiscent of the 2001 election in New York City when Michael Bloomberg used Mayor Rudy Giuliani's hero status after Sept. 11 to upset the favored Democrat Mark Green. Put President Bush in the Rudy role and congressional Democrats as Mark Green and there you have it.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate found that overall turnout was up by almost 2 percentage points compared to 1998, and Republicans, especially in the South, led the turnout increase. So Republicans won this low turnout election by essentially outmuscling the Democrats with a higher turnout from GOP core voters: white males, new suburbanites and rural conservatives.

The Democrats had exactly two bright spots: 1) The election of new governors in the critical battleground states of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin; and 2) A solid performance on the West Coast with Democrats holding onto governor's offices in California and Oregon.

In Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell won handily, even carrying the usually Republican Philadelphia suburbs. But the margins of Democratic winners in most states were reduced by the Bush surge of the last week, and gerrymandering allowed Republicans to make legislative gains in Pennsylvania and Michigan despite Democratic gubernatorial victories. Illinois was the one great Democratic triumph as they won both houses of the state legislatures and almost every statewide office.

On the West Coast, the Democrats narrowly held the governor's offices in California and Oregon. In California, Democrats gained their first sweep of statewide offices in modern times, trading two statewide offices for a couple of legislative seats. Compared to the national picture, that's a pretty decent performance.

This year also featured a record number of women and minority candidates for governor and senator with mixed results. There were eight male-female contests for governor in 2002 and three women won: Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, Janet Napolitano in Arizona, and Kathleen Sebulius in Kansas.

In Hawaii, Republican Maui Mayor Linda Lingle defeated a female Democrat to become the first GOP governor there in 40 years. But Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, Shannon O'Brien in Massachusetts and Myrth York all were upset in Democratic strongholds. Despite these Democratic disappointments, there will still be a record six female governors. So the "glass ceiling" for female candidates wasn't shattered, merely bumped.

In New Mexico, Democrat Bill Richardson (whose mother is Mexican) won easily, as was widely expected, becoming New Mexico's latest Hispanic governor. But in Texas, Democrat Tony Sanchez lost badly as part of the Democrats' "dream team" consisting of a Hispanic for governor and the black mayor of Dallas, Ron Kirk, for U.S. senator. Minority turnout was up by roughly 10 percent, but both Sanchez and Kirk failed to win the 30 percent to 35 percent of white voters they needed as Texas Republicans benefited greatly from Bush's huge popularity in his home state.

Once again, Texas Democrats lost every state office in Texas, their rebuilding effort has been set back at least another two years. However, since the last two Democratic nominees for governor and senator gathered less than 35 percent of the vote, this year's Democratic ticket showed marked improvement with 40 percent for Sanchez and 44 percent for Kirk. Black candidates for governor in New York and Nevada lost to extremely popular incumbents, no surprise there.

According to congressional expert Charlie Cook, the House results were not any landslide. Cook asserts that Republicans failed to take away any safe or "leaning" Democratic seats outside the South. All of the GOP gains came from new districts in the South and West.

However, since Democratic House leader Martin Frost was boasting of a 20- seat Democratic gain last summer, that would have easily given Democrats the House majority, any GOP gains were a huge political and psychological defeat for Democrats.

Democrats can correctly argue that the margin of defeat for the Senate outside the South was just a few points in three non-Southern states -- New Hampshire, Minnesota and Missouri. But Democrats had yet another genuine meltdown in the South and now face a 20-year rebuilding project there.

To briefly recap the history of Southern politics, this region was a one-party Democratic bastion after the Civil War. From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, the South voted solidly Democratic except for one defection in 1920 (Tennessee) and five strays in 1928, when the Democrats nominated New York's Irish Catholic Gov. Al Smith.

Then came the civil rights revolution. Most white Southerners were actually quite conservative and stayed in the Democratic coalition due to the memory of Northern Republican military occupation during the post-Civil War "Reconstruction" period. A racial backlash among Southern whites, coupled with the region's new post-1960 prosperity, caused the South to defect en masse from the national Democratic majority.

By 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the first Democrat to lose the Old South, reduced to carrying only President Johnson's Texas. Since then, non-Southern Democratic nominees have been shut out in Dixie.

As former Census Bureau Director Richard Scammon used to say, four elections, 11 Southern states, 44-0 for FDR. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Democrats have nominated four Yankees (Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis). Four elections, 11 Southern states, 1-43 against the Democrats. Only when Democrats nominated Southern natives like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton could they make (temporary) gains in the South.

But for the most part, Southerners continued to vote Democratic for Congress. In the 1969 Congress, Republicans had a slight majority outside the South, but a 2-1 Democratic margin among Southerners kept both Houses in Democratic hands. Even in the face of 49-state landslides by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Democrats kept a majority of Southern legislators. It wasn't until 1994 that Republicans won a majority of Southern senators and representatives -- along with their first majority in both Houses since 1953-54.

Under Bill Clinton, Democrats carried a few Southern states in the 1990s and gained a few Senate seats back in 1998 and 2000. Democrats seemed to slowly rebuilding in Dixie. But Al Gore was shut out in 2000 in the South (despite the fact that he was born in Tennessee) and it cost him the presidency.

Probably the biggest upsets of this year came in Georgia, where Republicans elected their first governor of the Peach State since Reconstruction ended in 1877 and GOP Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss won with the highest percentage (53 percent) ever for a Republican.

Prior to Nov. 5, Georgia wasn't on anybody's radar screen. (When The New York Times asked the Republican Governors Association to pick a potential GOP upset, their spokeswoman didn't even mention Georgia). Gov. Roy Barnes had a solid 55 percent job approval rating, was consistently ahead by 7-11 point margins in October and was touting himself as a potential presidential candidate in 2004.

The Georgia Democratic Party over the years has excelled at finding talented young men who had the consistent ability to build multi-racial coalitions. Barnes and Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee and decorated Vietnam veteran, seemed to be the latest in the long line of moderate Georgia Democrats who could hold on to 40 percent of the white vote and win with virtually all of the black vote.

Barnes was so unconcerned with his apparent re-election that he spent the night before hobnobbing with national reporters. Similarly, Cleland led, if narrowly, in every independent pre-election poll. Bush made a late stop for the local GOP, but it was assumed by nearly everyone that Barnes was simply too strong and he would pull Cleland to victory.

The results in Georgia were simply astonishing: Based on a massive turnout in the newer Atlanta suburbs and an equally massive shift among conservative rural Democrats, the Republicans elected a governor, a U.S. senator, an insurance commissioner, the school's superintendent, a "Public Service" commissioner and two congressional seats that had been drawn to favor Democrats. The GOP also ousted the state House speaker and state Senate majority leader. The Georgia Republican Party, led by Chairman Ralph Reed, pounded home the message that local Republicans stood with the president and that local Democrats were out of touch with Georgia values.

Timothy Carney wrote in National Review about the Georgia results: "Republicans have known for years that God-fearing, gun-toting folks were voting for Democrats. This year they did something about it with campaigns that stressed defense and social issues and an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort ... And now that these voters have seen that the Republican Party is the conservative party, they may never go back. The story is an important one to follow because it may be a road map to a South that is not majority Republican, but monolithically Republican."

Georgia was no fluke: Republicans also ousted Democratic incumbent governors in Alabama and South Carolina, while GOP incumbents were easily re-elected in Texas, Florida, and Arkansas. (Only in Tennessee did Democrats win a gubernatorial race).

In the Senate, former GOP presidential candidates Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee won handily and Democrats didn't even put up candidates in Mississippi and Virginia. (David Pryor in Arkansas was the Democrat's only Southern pickup).

And GOP wins were not unique to Georgia or to the top of the ticket races. For the first time ever in 2002, Republican gains extended down to the state legislative level. The GOP gained 50 new legislators, winning 49 percent of the state legislative contests on Nov. 5 and gaining control of the Texas House and Georgia State Senate, both for the first time since the Civil War era.

The only thing that kept Republicans from also making big gains in Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia is that there were no regularly scheduled state legislative elections there. Based on these huge Southern gains, (which may be enhanced by conservative Democrats switching parties, as has already started happening in Georgia), and coupled with normal Republican strength in the Farm Belt, Republicans now have a majority of state legislators for the first time since the Eisenhower landslide of 1952.

Roughly a decade ago, University of California Professor Marty Wattenberg did an analysis of attitudes among younger Southern white voters. Based on their strong Republican trend, Wattenberg predicted that the Democrats would eventually run out of talented young candidate recruits who could win on fairly conservative turf. That prediction has now come to pass and Georgia is the culmination of the Republican takeover of the South.

To summarize, Democrats could quite possibly win back control of Congress sometime in the next decade by winning the close contests in the North and West they lost last week after gerrymandering and the skilled campaign directed by the Bush White House.

But they will not be a very secure majority party unless they can substantially improve their prospects in the South. Barring a national landslide like 1932 or 1964, Democrats are facing permanent minority status in the South. Since this region has more than 30 percent of the population and is growing faster than the national average, Democrats face an urgent need to rebuild quickly in the South.

On Dec. 7, Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu faces a runoff against GOP challenger Suzanne Terrill. This race will be a "must-win" for the Democrats and potential gravy for the Southern GOP.

(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California Democrats).

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