Bob Moser provides a history of the Republican takeover of Southern politics and explains why Democrats should keep trying to get elected here. He believes that the key is to eschew the pandering, centrist sales pitch that Democrats have been giving in hopes of sucking up to moderate Republicans and offering up candidates who clearly distinguish themselves from their opponents. I like it.
But Dean’s approach–both in his campaign and with his new “fifty-state strategy” for the DNC–was hardly a hit with white national party leaders, who complained bitterly about the expense of hiring Democratic organizers, in the words of ex-Clinton adviser Paul Begala, to “wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.” In the 2006 midterms, national Democratic campaign committees shunned the fifty-state approach and backed only a handful of Democrats in the South. The chosen Southerners fit the “Republican Lite” mold to a T: social conservatives who emphasized “fiscal responsibility” and steered clear of calling for troop withdrawals in Iraq. The ideal Southern campaign, agreed Begala and his ilk, was Harold Ford Jr.’s lavishly financed Senate bid in Tennessee. Aiming to “out-Republican” his opponent, Ford spent the campaign bashing “illegals,” waving the flag, ridiculing the very notion of gay marriage and calling up a quote from the Bible to address every issue.
Ford’s loss was widely chalked up to race-baiting attack ads run by the Republican National Committee. But his defeat–like those of all but one of the Democrats’ chosen candidates in the South last year–can also be viewed as a lesson in the limitations of Clintonian compromise. So can the results from the border South state of Kentucky, where self-described “liberal” John Yarmuth–whose pleas for national funds fell on deaf ears–pulled off a startling upset in the state’s 3rd Congressional District by running a campaign that was the antithesis of Ford’s. “The mistake Democrats have made here over the years is that they never provided a sharp contrast,” says Yarmuth, who bested five-term Republican incumbent Anne Northup. “I said from day one, ‘Anne and I are 180 degrees apart. If she believes something, I don’t.’ I was that clear. I wanted the voters to have a real choice and see where they’d go.” They went with the frank-talking, antiwar, labor-loving candidate his own party considered too “liberal” to win. Meanwhile, the two party-funded challengers in Kentucky, both staunch social conservatives aiming to join the Blue Dog Coalition in Congress, got their clocks cleaned. “There’s a Beltway mentality that succumbs too much to conventional punditry,” says Yarmuth. “The voters are way ahead of the Democrats and way ahead of Washington.”