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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Democratic Comeback in the South?

The notion that the Democratic Party is D.O.A. in the south has been upended by Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race and the strong showing of Democrats in Virginia’s recent elections, along with John Bel Edwards becoming Louisiana Governor in 2016.

Democrats may also have a real shot at winning the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Thad Cochran in Mississippi. Republican Governor Phil Bryant is expected to name state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate seat, but she will have some nasty opposition from hard-core conservative Chris McDaniel. Ed Kilgore writes that McDaniel feels “entitled” to the G.O.P. nomination as a result of  “his close primary race against Cochran in 2014.” Indeed, McDaniel has already announced his candidacy for the seat in November.

Several Mississippi Democrats are considering running for the Senate seat. But the most likely Democratic candidate is former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Congressman Mike Espy. As Kilgore notes,

Establishment Republicans in both Jackson and Washington, however, fear that if McDaniel (who has a robust collection of craziness on his résumé) edges Hyde-Smith in the special election, he might actually lose the seat to Espy, an outcome that would be as strange as the GOP’s loss of Jeff Sessions’s seat in next-door Alabama. It’s the sort of thing that could even produce a Democratic majority in the Senate.

An Espy victory in Mississippi will require a heroic voter turnout effort similar to what occurred in the recent Alabama and Virginia elections, along with a strong Espy campaign. If such a prospect seemed unlikely a year ago, it now seems possible.

Perhaps the marquee Senate race in the south will be Democrat Beto O’Rourke vs. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose current approval ratings in Texas are less than impressive. O’Rourke lags in some recent polls, but he is credited with solid skills in terms of public speaking, debating and messaging in general. He could ride a blue wave to flip the seat for Dems. In the Tennessee US. Senate race, former Democratic Gov. Bill Bredesen leads Rep. Marsha Blackburn in a new PPP poll — a possible pick-up opportunity for Democrats.

Dems have their best southern pick-up prospects in House districts FL-26, FL-27, TX-7 and VA-10, according to the Cook Political Report. If a ‘blue wave’ materializes, another half-dozen seats could be included.

In addition, Democrats have candidates for all 2018 governor’s contests in the south. Florida, where Democrats have three strong candidates, is the marquee race, and it is currently rated a toss-up. In addition, the gun safety issue may help Democratic candidates in Florida. Georgia and Tennessee governors races could also get competitive.

Democrats lack majority control of both houses of the state legislature in any southern state, except for Maryland. But they are very close to majorities — 2 votes down in both houses of the Virginia state legislature. Dems are also contending for majorities in the state senates of FL, SC, TX and LA., but lag by larger margins in the lower houses of southern state legislatures, as a result of the impressive Republican takeover campaigns of recent years.

Of course, the Republican ‘control’ of the South has been overstated, in that Democrats have long held the mayorships of most major southern cities. Democrats currently serve as Mayors of Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, Baton Rouge, Memphis, Baltimore, Annapolis, Louisville, New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., Tallahassee, Little Rock, Chattanooga, Columbia, SC, Tampa, Jackson, Birmingham, Orlando, Wilmington, NC, Norfolk and Richmond, in addition to numerous second tier cities.

While it would be overstating the case to say that the south is back in play in a big way for Democrats, it is reasonable enough to expect some significant improvement in 2018 and there is cause for hoping to do even better in the longer range. But Democrats must raise their game considerably with respect to campaigns for state legislative seats.

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