ED KILGORE MARCH 9, 2010
As we all understand, Republicans are about to have a pretty good election in November. Much of the GOP excitement revolves around congressional races that could unseat “red-state” Democrats who won during the 2006 or 2008 cycles, along with a number of incumbents (some of whom have decided to retire) who have been around much longer. Ground zero for the Republican tsunami is, of course, the Deep South, where in some areas John McCain did better in 2008 than George W. Bush did in 2004, and where every available indicator shows the president to be very unpopular among white voters.
But beneath this storyline, some odd and counterintuitive things are going on. In three Deep South states, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, Democrats have a decent chance of retaking long-lost governorships, in part because of infighting among Republican candidates, and in part because Republican rule in those states has not been terribly successful or popular. It’s far too early to make predictions, but it’s possible that we're in for a repeat of the astounding gubernatorial Trifecta that Democrats pulled off in those same three states in 1998. That event confounded widespread assessments that the South had become a one-party GOP region, and it could happen again, in even more unlikely circumstances.
Our own appraisal begins in Georgia, with one of the surprise winners of 1998, former Governor Roy Barnes. Barnes lost his reelection bid in 2002 to Sonny Perdue, a party-switching state senator, despite the power of incumbency and a huge financial advantage. Since then, Barnes has regularly admitted his mistakes. And, amazingly enough, in the latest Georgia gubernatorial poll, he’s running ahead of every single Republican candidate.
Meanwhile, Georgia Republicans, who have dominated state politics since 2002, are having some serious problems with their own gubernatorial bench. The consistent frontrunner in the polls, longtime insurance commissioner John Oxendine, is awash in ethics allegations about contributions from the insurance companies that he is responsible for regulating. His record is so blatantly bad that none other than Erick Erickson, the Georgia-based proprietor of the nationally influential, hard-core conservative web site RedState, has said he’d vote for Barnes if Oxendine is the GOP nominee.
Rather pathetically, the alternative to Oxendine and the favorite of some party insiders is Representative Nathan Deal of Georgia's Ninth District (like Perdue, a party-switcher), who recently said he would resign his congressional seat after a health care vote to concentrate on his gubernatorial campaign. As it happens, Deal’s resignation managed to short-circuit a House Ethics Committee investigation into a no-bid state auto-salvage contract that was awarded to a company which Deal controls. The insider buzz in Atlanta is that Deal was motivated to resign, in part, because of panic among Georgia Republican pooh-bahs who worried that Oxendine would walk away with the gubernatorial nomination on name id alone.
The rest of the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls are struggling as well. The entire party, and several of the gubernatorial candidates, were tainted by association with disgraced former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who was forced to resign after a lurid sex-and-lobbying scandal. The one candidate who seems ethically starchy, Secretary of State Karen Handel, has struggled to raise the money necessary to win, and also suffers from the perception that she’s the unpopular Sonny Perdue’s chosen successor.
All these Republican problems could eventually fade, and Roy Barnes must also navigate a Democratic primary against Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a law-'n-order conservative who is one of the nation’s longest-serving African American statewide elected officials (as well as two other lesser but credible opponents). Nevertheless at present, Barnes—or Baker, if he could somehow upset Barnes—looks entirely viable for November.
Next door in Alabama, you’d think that the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner, Congressman Artur Davis, wouldn’t stand a chance. He’s a member of the much-hated United States Congress; he’s African American; he’s a close personal friend of Barack Obama; and he's frequently been tagged, like the president, as an Ivy League-educated, twenty-first-century–style black politician. But the sparse public polling available shows Davis in a very strong position for the general election, assuming that he dispenses with a primary challenge from state agriculture commissioner Ron Sparks, who’s been struggling to raise money. Davis, who has long nursed gubernatorial ambitions, carefully tailored his congressional record to Alabama public opinion: He voted against health care reform in the House, and he was also the first Congressional Black Caucus member (and, for that matter, the first one on the Ways and Means Committee) to call for Charlie Rangel to step aside from his powerful chairmanship.
Meanwhile, there is no real frontrunner in the Republican gubernatorial primary, which bids fair to become an ideological flame war. Back in 2002, the “establishment” candidate, state Senator Bradley Byrne, made the fatal mistake of voting for a-tax reform initiative that was soundly defeated in an emphatic expression of Alabamians’ mistrust of government. Tim James, son of former conservative Democratic and Republican Governor Fob James, was one of the main opponents of that initiative, and he will bring it up constantly. Meanwhile Christian Right warhorse Roy Moore, the famous “Ten Commandments Judge,” is actually running second to Byrne in early polls. All of the dynamics in the race will pull the GOP candidates to the hard-right, while Artur Davis continues to occupy the political center; and his candidacy will almost certainly boost African American turnout to near-2008 levels. That means anything could happen in November.
South Carolina is often thought of as the most Republican of Southern states. But Mark Sanford, the disgraced incumbent governor, has complicated his party's prospects. Meanwhile, an ideological civil war is brewing that reflects the growing tension between the state’s two Republican senators, right-wing bomb thrower Jim DeMint and the more moderate Lindsey Graham (Graham, long suspect among home-state conservatives for his friendship with John McCain and his occasional bipartisanship, has recently been formally censured by two of South Carolina's county GOP organizations for a variety of sins). As in Georgia and Alabama, the Republican gubernatorial field is a mess: Nobody is a frontrunner and all the candidates are stampeding to the hard right. And I do mean hard right. In a sign of the times, Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who has few friends in the state’s Republican establishment, delivered a speech comparing recipients of subsidized school lunches to “stray animals” who should no longer be fed unconditionally. While he took a few shots from fellow Republicans for his indiscreet language, nobody disputed, and some praised, his basic premise that any form of public assistance corrupts its recipients and should come with some sort of reciprocal obligation.
The frontrunners in early polls are Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster. Upstate Congressman Gresham Barrett, who must overcome the opprobrium of voting for TARP, is close behind. Meanwhile, Sanford's protégé, state Representative Nikki Haley (who was even endorsed by the governor's ex-wife), is trying to push the campaign hard right by opposing any expenditure of federal stimulus dollars in this high-unemployment state. At a recent candidate forum, when the rivals were pushed to call themselves “DeMint Republicans” or “Graham Republicans,” Bauer and Haley flatly identified with DeMint, while McMasters and Barrett dodged the question.
On the Democratic side, a Rasmussen poll in December showed the front-running Democrat, State School Superintendent Jim Rex, actually beating Bauer and running within single digits against other GOP candidates. (State Representative Vincent Sheheen is also a credible Democratic candidate). Again, anything could happen, but the assumption that Republicans have a lock on this state’s elections is as dubious as the same assumption back in 1998.
So, at a time when Democrats are despairing of good news, it’s important to understand that the donkey isn't quite dead, even in the Deep South. There are consequences to Republican extremism and malfeasance in office. And, when GOP candidates battle for first place on the crazy train of contemporary conservatism, it's Democrats who stand to benefit.