COLUMBIA — As Democrats try to curtail GOP dominance in the South, the party’s top recruits for 2014 elections are trying to sell themselves as problem solvers above Washington’s partisan gridlock.
They’re casting the Republicans’ anti-government mantra and emphasis on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as ideological obstacles to progress on “bread-and-butter” issues like public education, infrastructure and health care.
That goes beyond their usual effort to distance themselves from President Barack Obama and national Democrats, and it’s the closest thing the Democratic Party has to a unified strategy in the region beyond simply waiting for demographics to shift in the long term to ensure they can compete with Republicans.
Minority growth in North Carolina and Virginia, and the influx of whites who aren’t native Southerners, has heralded Democratic victories in recent years, and Democrats want to make similar inroads in changing states like South Carolina and Georgia.
So Democratic candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate hope to hasten the transition away from Republican rule by emphasizing their own Southern roots and focusing on local issues and outcomes.
“I am a lifelong resident of a small town in South Carolina who is disgusted with Washington,” said Vincent Sheheen, who will make his second run against Gov. Nikki Haley.
“Nikki Haley wants this race to be about national politics,” the attorney and state senator said recently. “I’m the person who’s independent, not driven by talking points from a national party that wants to nationalize everything with ideology. That doesn’t solve practical issues that affect people’s lives.”
Haley, who consistently frames Obama’s policies as out of step with South Carolina, is trying to tie Sheheen closely to the Democratic Party, particularly for advocating that South Carolina accept Medicaid insurance expansion under Obama’s health care overhaul.
Sheheen sees his position differently: “I’ve made a very practical decision: Oppose Washington when it’s not in South Carolina’s best interest but cooperate with any level of government when it is, regardless of party politics.”
Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, is taking a similar approach in her bid to topple U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Democrat argues that McConnell’s role in the Senate puts Republican opposition to Obama above practical solutions for the folks back home.
In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn launched her bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia with a two-week, 10-city tour that she dubbed “What Washington can learn from Georgia.” She planned community service events and offered a dual message at each stop: Folks can get along and make things happen on the ground without Washington.
And in Arkansas, former Rep. Mike Ross wants to hold onto to a rare Democratic governor’s seat in the region after popular Gov. Mike Beebe retires. Casting aside his 12 years in Congress, Ross portrays himself as anti-Washington. “You think you’re tired of Congress?” he joked in public appearance earlier this year. “I was so fed up, I quit my job.”
Democrats hope their approach in those races and others will lure back just enough moderates or even conservatives in states where the party has been competitive recently. Sheheen trailed Haley by 60,000 votes – 4.5 percentage points – in their first matchup. Grimes has won statewide already. Obama lost Georgia by 5 percentage points and 8 percentage points with minimal effort in the state.
These contests won’t turn the South’s political complexion at once, but any success could offer a roadmap in states like Alabama and Tennessee, where there are few if any obvious Democratic candidates for top offices next year.
There are national consequences, as well.
Republicans must gain six more Senate seats to control the chamber for the last two years of Obama’s presidency, and they can’t afford to lose seats in Kentucky and Georgia. Democrats, meanwhile, want to cut into the GOP’s 30 governor’s seats ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and executives elected in the next few years also could become two-term governors who influence congressional and legislative redistricting after the 2020 census. Republicans used that power after 2010 to draw districts that helped them maintain control of the U.S. House even as Democrats won key Senate races and the White House.
Democrats explain their 2014 Southern approach as taking advantage of what Republicans give them.
“Democrats focus on recruiting candidates who understand the lives of people in their states,” said Danny Kanner of the Democratic Governors Association. “Republicans focus, almost exclusively, on an ideological agenda that panders to the right wing of their party.”
Republicans counter the Democratic strategy by linking the party’s candidates to Obama, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Harry Reid. All three frequently appear in television and printed campaign ads against Democrats running at every level of government in the South.
In Georgia, Republicans note that Nunn consulted with Reid before launching her bid. South Carolina Republicans call Obama’s 2010 health care law “the Sheheen-Obama health care takeover.” Arkansas Republicans have promised that Ross will answer for his “liberal voting record” in Congress.
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