National Democrats are seeing glimmers of electoral hope flickering across the deep red South for the first time in years.
Fresh off sweeping victories in Virginia, and eyeing a possible historic upset in Alabama, the party is looking ahead to a political environment next year defined by both energized liberal base voters and discouraged conservatives. That, combined with an intraparty GOP war, has liberal leaders taking a new look at Senate, gubernatorial and House races in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and Mississippi, in addition to next month’s contest in Alabama.
One or two upsets in the South next year could be the difference in which party controls the Senate after next year’s midterms.
The new, long-shot interest is partially borne of necessity: forced to defend incumbents everywhere else, the South provides some of Democrats’ only takeover targets. But whether by necessity or choice, the attention to a region the country long thought of as too forbidding to bother with is long overdue, some prominent Democrats say.
“It depends on how the Democratic Party plays it: If they work under the assumption that simply not being Republican is enough, then they’re in for a big disappointment," said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — one of just two Southern Democratic governors outside of Virginia — who, like North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, frequently speaks with candidates in the region to offer advice. "But if they understand that this presents an opportunity for them to reconnect with voters who moved away from the Democratic Party over the last couple of decades, and then do what is required to reconnect with them, then there is a tremendous opportunity.”
Waking up to a new electoral landscape after stunning wins in Virginia and across the country last week, Democrats’ confidence in the region was only buoyed by last week’s Washington Post report that twice-removed Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore had pursued four teenagers when he was in his 30s. The allegations, which included an accusation by one woman thatMoore initiated sexual contact with her when she was 14, landed one month before Election Day.
Yet it was the nature of Virginia’s victories that gave Democrats the most long-term hope. Some of Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s biggest margins in the gubernatorial race came in suburban areas similar to the ones that dot North Carolina and Georgia, and down-ballot Democrats swept into power across those districts.
While winning in conservative areas of the South has been difficult for Democrats in recent decades, the movement of droves of highly educated suburban voters away from Donald Trump-era Republicans is a shift significant enough to set the stage for potentially competitive races.
Count Republicans as highly skeptical. They’re quick to note how often they hear Democrats talk about a return to the region, and how seldom it works. They note that for all of Northam’s advantages, he still lost by large margins in Virginia’s rural areas that look more like the rest of the South than the suburban enclaves.
“I hope they spend $100 million trying to win the South,” said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chairman.
Still, Democrats plainly smell opportunity. They are monitoring a crop of muddy GOP situations — like a South Carolina corruption scandal that’s seen six Republican lawmakers indicted — and national trends — like Trump-inspired primary fights in South Carolina’s gubernatorial race, Tennessee’s Senate race and, potentially, Mississippi’s Senate race.
“Trump winning is the best thing that happened to Democratic politics here in a long time,” said South Carolina lawyer Boyd Brown, a former state legislator and DNC member. "It’s unfortunate that we have to suffer through him to revitalize a dead party, but he’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
In the past week, national Democratic leaders have been looking for ways to broaden their scope in the South. They’re searching for offensive opportunities to supplement the many defensive fights they must wage in 2018, including reelecting 10 senators in states Trump won last year.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s target list now includes eight GOP-held seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina, on top of 14 others in Virginia, Florida and Texas. Stronger-than-usual recruits have party operatives uncharacteristically hopeful about open gubernatorial races in Georgia and Tennessee, and others are working on recruiting former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Bob Corker.
That’s not all. Even if Bredesen skips the race, Democrats are high on Iraq War veteran and prosecutor James Mackler, who already entered the race and has been meeting with national-level donors. North Carolina Democrats led by Cooper are aiming to claw back a number of seats in the state legislature. And, with local firebrand Chris McDaniel threatening to mount a primary challenge against GOP Sen. Roger Wicker with support from ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon, Mississippi Democrats have been eyeing Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a distant cousin of Elvis Presley, for the race.
“If there’s a wave, by God there will be a sea change in the South," said Democratic National Committee Associate Chairman Jaime Harrison, a former party chair in South Carolina who’s been traveling through Southern states to evaluate state party infrastructures. "For the first time, we’re putting people and bodies and talent in races."
At a time when moderate Republicans in the model of Corker have become more emboldened to oppose Trump, many Democrats are simply aiming to offer such conservatives, and disaffected independents, an outlet to reject the president’s divisive brand of politics. That’s similar to the game-plan for Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney running against Moore in Alabama.
"Clearly what’s happening right now is not just that there’s more energy with Democrats, it’s that independents are moving in the direction of the Democratic Party,” said longtime Democratic campaign hand Joe Trippi, Jones’ chief strategist.
But in many parts of the South, Democratic candidates reach viability only if their base voters — often largely African-Americans who revile the president — are sufficiently fired up by the campaign in the first place. That, plus Republicans becoming disgusted and disengaged.
“Democratic candidates are outperforming where you would expect them to perform in a cycle like this in a significant way,” said Jim Hodges, the last Democratic governor of South Carolina. "The thing to watch is whether reliable Republican voters are turned off and don’t show up: To win a race like South Carolina or another deep South state, you have to have an enthusiastic base of Democrats and turned-off Republicans.”
Still, even reaching that point is a delicate task that divides Southern Democrats.
For some, Virginia’s results were evidence that anti-Trump fervor is sufficient to turn out a furious grass-roots army. Bucking those voters’ wishes by trying to appeal to Trump backers is a recipe for an electoral wipe-out, such Democrats argue.
"Where we have focused on Trump voters, I think what we need to be focused on is the opposition to the Trump agenda that is engaging and energizing Democrats,” said Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader who is now running for governor.
But given the heavy Republican skew of many Southern states, running against Trump and the GOP is itself a dangerous game, in the eyes of the opposing camp.
“There are real opportunities right now, but sometimes you learn the wrong lessons,” warned Edwards. "We’re not going to win by simply not being Republicans. We’re not going to win by simply not being Donald Trump.”
Both sides of that debate are wary of bringing the national Democratic Party into the mix, given its toxic image in much of the region. While Senate Democrats’ campaign wing has been in close contact with Jones’ camp for weeks, providing guidance on his field program and communications strategy, it has yet to spend money on a television ad buy.
And while national Democrats have raised money for Jones, only one high-profile surrogate — former Vice President Joe Biden — has visited the state for him, partially because so few high-profile party leaders are palatable to the state’s voters.
Even some party leaders in the region think the optimism is premature. They note that Edwards and Cooper each ran against deeply unpopular Republicans in highly localized races, and that local state party infrastructures remain a mess with too little emphasis on engaging black voters.
“The opportunity has been there all the time, the challenge has been whether or not Democrats are willing to put the resources behind the efforts — and I’m not certain they’re ready to do it,” said Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson. "In many instances, Democrats still take the minority vote for granted."