Don't Count Democrats Out in the South

Republicans should start worrying about their plan to sweep into the Senate majority.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear address the audience at the 50th annual Kentucky Country Ham Breakfast, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Louisville, Ky.

Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear fares significantly better than some GOP governors in the South.

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Are Democrats doomed to defeat in Dixie? Inquiring minds want to know.

We know that’s not the case in Virginia, where elected Democrats serve in all five elected statewide offices and where President Barack Obama defeated his Republic opponents in the last two presidential elections. Republicans in Texas should enjoy their day in the sun as long as they can, because the fast growing Latino population will make the Lone Star state a blue state in the next decade or two.

Now, thanks to polls conducted by the New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation in four southern states where Senate incumbents are under siege this year, we know the Democratic Party isn’t as bad off in the South as many political pundits believe. The South is a critical test case in American politics. If the GOP can’t dominate Dixie, is there any place it can feel secure?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Republicans need a clean sweep in the South to take control of the U.S. Senate. These surveys suggest that Republicans will have to keep their brooms in the closet. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu, La., and Kay Hagen, N.C., are in tight races with their Republican challengers, but GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, is clearly vulnerable. The other vulnerable Democratic Sen. is Arkansas' Mark Pryor, but he enjoys a 10 percent lead over challenger Tom Cotton.

The most interesting state is Kentucky, where McConnell is in grave danger of losing his seat. The Democratic governor there, Steve Beshear, who has actively championed the Affordable Care Act, enjoys a 56 percent positive performance score. Beshear’s standing could be because a majority of Kentucky voters (52 percent) don’t want to repeal Obamacare.

In these four Southern states, Democratic governors do it better. Beshear fares significantly better than Republican governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Pat McCrory of North Carolina, with positive performance ratings of 40 percent and 43 percent, respectively. Both GOP governors have blocked implementation of Obamacare in their states. Beshear’s Democratic colleague in Arkansas, Mike Beebe, is the best regarded chief executive, with nearly seven in 10 voters giving him positive performance grades.

Many voters in Kentucky think it’s time to ditch Mitch. Only four in ten voters give him positive job ratings. One of McConnell’s problems could be that a majority of voters in Kentucky oppose the repeal of the law that the Senate Minority Leader wants to repeal. Majorities of voters also oppose repeal of the Affordable Care Act in Arkansas and Louisiana. A plurality opposes repeal in Arkansas, where the GOP challenger trails Pryor by 10 percent. Hagen’s position matches the preferences of her constituents, too, as she opposes repeal but she does want to fix the problems with the law.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.

Many of the voters in the South who oppose repeal of Obamacare are among the more than 8 million Americans who have already signed up for the new health insurance program. It’s not surprising that those voters fear repeal, because they don’t want to go back to the bad old days when heath insurers could treat them like diseased cattle. And since the House GOP has never had a vote on an alternative, these voters know they have nowhere to go if Republicans repeal the law. And maybe some of the voters who don’t want to repeal Obamacares worry that Republicans will kill Medicare once the GOP finishes off the Affordable Care Act.

It’s impossible to address politics in the South without a discussion of race. 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, but racism is still alive and well. The landmark law has been a blessing to the nation and a cross to bear for Democrats in the South. Attitudes about blacks have softened in the last 50 years, but the recent rants of rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling illustrate that there are still a lot of dead enders who will fight to the end against racial progress. Once racial equality in thought, word and deed becomes the norm, Democratic fortunes will improve in the South and everywhere else racists live.