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Why Democrats think they can compete in the South
Jimmy Carter's grandson hopes to usher in a new era of Southern politics
 
A political blue-blood is making a play for Georgia's 2014 governor's race.
A political blue-blood is making a play for Georgia's 2014 governor's race. (Facebook.com/Carter4Ga)

It has been a long time since the Democrats governed the Solid South, and while talk of turning the region blue might sound like a liberal pipe dream, there are signs that the Democratic Party is trying to be competitive south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Take state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, who recently announced that he was entering the Georgia governor's race in 2014. He will be joined by another legacy Democrat, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, who is running to replace Georgia's retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican.

Georgia, once one of the bluest Southern states, has been reliably Republican since the 1990s. But some Democrats think the Carter-Nunn combination could be a formidable one, writes The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan:

The...reason Democrats are jazzed is the idea that Nunn and Carter could complement one another politically. Nunn’s father was popular with white, rural voters, while Carter’s grandfather was popular among African Americans. If the two can follow in those footsteps, the thinking goes, they can build a robust coordinated effort to win back the Senate seat and governor’s mansion. [Washington Post]

A Carter victory could be a "potential road-paver into the South for Democrats," writes The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson, providing a blueprint for how to win over the region's shifting electorate — one that is increasingly black and Latino. Paired with the increasing appeal of cities like Atlanta and Savannah to white liberals, and there is at least some room for Democratic gains in the Peach State.

The Democratic Party is also looking to defend and gain some Senate seats in other Southern states, mostly to make up for potential losses in South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana, thanks to several retiring Democrats.

The party's best hope? That conservative Republicans veer so far to the right, especially during competitive primaries, that they leave the middle wide open.

“They have ceded so much real estate to Democrats,” Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told The Daily Beast. “They have been catering to these reckless elements in the Tea Party and hurting themselves in a general election.”

Establishment Republicans are facing Tea Party challengers in Senate races in Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina, increasing the odds that Democrats will face some weak opponents — either an establishment figure bruised by the primary process or a far-right candidate.

Earlier this year, The Atlantic's Molly Ball compared the situation to the one in the West in 2000, when states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico seemed off limits. All of them voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

While the "South is not where the West was" when Democrats initially made a play for it, Democratic consultant Jill Hanauer told Ball, "Republican legislators are going further than the Southern public wants." Every Todd Akin-like comment about rape or Ken Cuccinelli-like stand against sodomy could alienate suburban voters, especially women, creating opportunities for moderate Democrats.

Not that the road will be an easy one. Southern voters are still very conservative, and Democrats have long given the region up for dead, meaning they have very little infrastructure to support promising candidates.

Political groups like the Southern Progress Fund, South Forward, and Naturally Blue, however, are popping up to fill the void, and Democrats are out-fundraising Republicans in nearly every competitive Senate contest in the South, reports the National Journal.

Democrats don't expect to retake the South now. But, with some money and manpower, a bright red Bible Belt might not be a foregone conclusion a decade from now.

 
Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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