Will Obama Have Coattails in the South?

By: - June 10, 2008 12:00 am

CHARLESTON, S.C. – High turnout among African-Americans and younger voters supporting U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) could reshape the Southern political landscape this fall. But with a few exceptions, Democrats may find gains in statewide contests thwarted by bad timing and a potential conservative backlash.

Democratic and Republican strategists agree that African Americans and young voters of all backgrounds in the South stand ready to come out in droves in November to back Obama now that he has clinched the Democratic nomination – just as they did for the recently concluded presidential primaries.

Some Democrats hold out hope that Obama could actually win one of the six Southern states that he won so convincingly during the primary season – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina – all of which have voted strongly Republican in recent presidential elections .

But while it’s an outside possibility in North Carolina, most analysts believe Obama’s likelihood of picking off any of the other five Southern states is a long shot.

More plausible, though, is a November scenario in which the voters Obama draws to the polls also pull the lever for Democrats up and down the ticket – in statewide posts, congressional seats, state legislative seats and even county positions.

Democrats in the region have been salivating over this possibility for months. Consider Waring Howe, a Democratic National Committeeman from South Carolina and, until recently, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party. When Howe first realized that Obama might become the party’s nominee, “I used that as a candidate recruiting tool. But I actually didn’t have to use it much, because a lot of the prospective candidates already felt that way anyway.”

How much of an impact could this turnout surge have for Democrats further down the ballot? The answer, according to nearly 30 state and national experts, is that the effect may be somewhat limited.

Of these six Southern states, only North Carolina has a gubernatorial race this year, and statewide contests of any kind are few and far between this fall in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Even at the state legislative level, only Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have elections at all this year, and none of their chambers is considered likely to switch partisan control. The Democrats already control the North Carolina Legislature, and the GOP has strong margins in both chambers in Georgia and South Carolina. Moreover, on a seat-by-seat basis, legislative seats in these states are often so gerrymandered that a Democratic surge may not be able to dislodge many GOP incumbents – and won’t be needed to retain Democratic-held seats.

On a statewide level, the biggest down-ballot impact for Democrats will likely come in the close race for North Carolina open-seat governorship, which pits Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R). Even before the presidential primaries began, incumbent Democrats seemed to be well-positioned to retain several other statewide posts in the Tarheel State, including attorney general and secretary of state.

A potential turnout boost for the Democrats could seal the deal in these races and help Democrats keep the lieutenant governor post that Perdue is vacating. North Carolina is among 18 states in which governors and lieutenant governors run for office separately, not as a ticket.

When North Carolina Democratic chairman Jerry Meek endorsed Sen. Obama the day after the North Carolina primary, he said, “I cited my belief that he would have a substantial down-ballot effect. It will be strongest in statewide races, and all of those are intensely competitive.”

Only three of every four people who voted for president in North Carolina’s Democratic primary also voted in lower contests, such as the labor commissioner race. Still, the total Democratic turnout was three times as high as the Republican turnout, so one can expect that many of the new voters will have an impact in the fall as well, said John Davis, president of the North Carolina Forum for Research and Economic Education, a business and political research group. “Obama’s impact down-ballot will be huge for Democrats, if he is able to sustain his momentum,” Davis said.

Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, the national GOP steering group for legislative campaigns, acknowledged that Republicans need to pay attention to the pro-Democratic voting trends in the South. But she added that by running strong, local, issue-oriented campaigns, “we feel very good about the legislative races” in the region.

The biggest effect will likely be felt in congressional races, where the control of perhaps eight to 10 U.S. House seats and three U.S. Senate seats in these states could be at stake.

Two U.S. Senate seats – those held by Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina – are far more threatened by former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) and North Carolina state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) than had been predicted just a few months ago. And endangered U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) may find an energized black base her only way to win a third term given the state’s population loss following Hurricane Katrina.

In some ways, the biggest Southern opportunity for Democrats could be county-level races. “Georgia went big for Obama in the primary, and I know there is a lot of excitement about him in certain areas of the state – metro Atlanta, definitely,” said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga. “So I could see it really helping out” in races for county commissions and school boards.

However, in other places, including here in Charleston, S.C., Democrats concede that their party may have missed an opportunity. In populous Charleston County, a range of local positions, from solicitor to sheriff, have either no Democratic candidate at all or a little-known hopeful, several sources here said.

But even if Democrats do produce strong candidates, they face a potentially serious drag: the possibility that Obama’s presence on the ticket, given his race and his liberal views on many issues, could drive conservative white voters to the polls in a way that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, John McCain, might otherwise not.

Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster with Louisiana-based Southern Media & Opinion Research, said that in an April statewide survey by his firm, Obama won only 18 percent of the white vote and prompted high negatives. “In Louisiana, Obama will definitely energize black voters to a bigger-than-normal turnout,” he said. “But the white, anti-Obama turnout will at least match that and could be even higher.”

Republicans are convinced that Obama will energize their voters. “Barack Obama has shown unequivocally that he won’t be capable of connecting with Mississippians in a general election, quite simply because he does not share the values of an overwhelming majority of folks here,” said Cory Adair, political director of the Mississippi Republican Party

Even in a state like North Carolina, Obama could harm some down-ballot Democrats even as he helps others. Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, said that his region – a predominantly white area where Obama did poorly – could be one in which Obama has “a negative impact” on fellow Democrats.

Privately, Democratic officials in the South acknowledge that moderate-to-conservative white Democratic politicians will have to decide how aggressively they should link themselves with Obama, who will come under heavy fire from Republicans for holding liberal views.

“The situation here in Alabama is like a lot of places – many politicos are watching the African-American vote with either great anxiety or great expectations,” said former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder, a Democrat.

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the “Out There” column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.

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