Friday, November 24, 2006

Fifty States v. Fitting States

Don't look now, but the vaunted "Fifty State Strategy" of Howard Dean wasn't particularly successful in one very important region of the country: the South.

Conventional wisdom lately has it that a party cannot win the Presidency without winning at least some of the South, so making some gains in the 2006 elections was crucial to the 2008 Presidential contest. Other than Florida, and that by dint of the Mark Foley scandal and the incredibly inept candidacy of Katherine Harris, the Dems did not pick up one Southern seat below Virginia, and in fact, ceded open seats in Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Was this deliberate, or was this merely the confluence of a strongly racist, anti-progressive region with a nominal and weak Democratic presence, providing poor candidates for voters to choose from?

Given the fact that, among the Dems that lost was Harold Ford Jr., of Tennessee, long touted as possible Presidential material, it's hard to say for certain. Thomas Schaller, instructor of poliical science at the University of Maryland, argues in his book "Whistling Past Dixie: How the Democrats Can Win Without the South," that the Democrats don't need the South to win, and in fact, ought to just write it off completely, for now.

In the last days of the campaign, Dean backed off his strategy a little. Instead of saying Democrats must be competitive in all fifty states, his tone changed slightly to one of "we have to ask for votes in all fifty states." The nuanced interpretation is, we may not win, but at least people won't think we've written them off.

And yet...
Throughout the South, Democrats ceded vast swaths of Congressional territory to Republicans, hardly bothering to show that the party was alive, even in places where such a demonstration might have been welcome. In Louisiana, Democrats barely fought in two Congressional districts where Republican incumbents could have been vulnerable: the Fifth District in the north, represented by a party-switching Republican whose last-minute change infuriated the state’s Democrats two years ago, and the Seventh District in Cajun country to the south, peopled by socially tolerant French Catholics and long represented by Democrats.

Democratic officials in the state say they tried to persuade strong candidates to take up these challenges but found no buyers and evidently no deep bench from which to draw, testimony to the years of national Republican ascendancy.

True, President Bush piled up big majorities in 2004 in both districts, but he also did so in a southern Louisiana district where the Democratic incumbent was handily re-elected on Nov. 7. Had Democrats fought in Louisiana this year, “they would have made a good run for it,” said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University.

In Mississippi and Alabama, Republican incumbents cruised to re-election with hardly a peep out of the Democrats. Yet Mississippi, depicted by Mr. Schaller in some ways as the most impregnable Republican bastion in the South, has elected progressive Democrats as governor three times in the last three decades, a fact unmentioned by Mr. Schaller in his book. In Georgia, two Democratic incumbents considered by Republicans to be among the most vulnerable in the nation held their seats, albeit narrowly.
My suspicion is that the South is ripe for a little blue paint, but I wouldn't start buying in bulk. Ford lost, but still managed 48% in a state that simply hates blacks, and if it had a decent vote restoration program for ex-cons (mostly convicted of low-level drug crimes, including marijuana possession), Ford could have won, handily. Florida is starting to turn a little bluer again, as the "morality" of Christian Coalition leaders starts to take some egregious twists and turns.

It's hard to vote your "conscience" when your conscience is porking sixteen year old boys.

Finally, the last indication that the South is preparing to turn: for the first time in 52 years, the party that controls Congress will not hold a majority of southern seats. It's going to be hard for southern voters to keep pulling levers and pushing buttons for people who can't get the goddam interstate fixed.

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