60 Seats in the Senate: The Road is Through the South
It’s the last few hours of the campaign. The polls are all over the map, and traditional measures don’t mean much anyway, because many races are already in the can. Early voting has turned it into election month, with a rolling sea of decisions over the country. The great wave election of 2002, whereby Bush’s power was confirmed with a series of stunning victories, including defeating Max Cleland of Georgia by questioning the patriotism of a man who gave three limbs for his country, is set to be reversed, in one of the most powerful repudiations in American history.
At stake are 35 Senate seats, 33 regular, and two special elections. What are the last minute indications? That 60 in the US Senate has many possible roads, including some that do not lead through the ballot box. However all of them lead through the closest race in the Senate and will be carried on the wings of the angel of the New South.
It’s traditional to start with the safest races and work to the closest, instead, there are really three kinds of races. The first are the races that will show how much the “squalid South” of the new Republican Party remains firm. The second, whether Democrats can make inroads into the northern and western, once “moderate” or “maverick” Republican states. The third is Alaska, which combines aspects of both. This post goes over the races in the South, and how they show a mixture of forces working to change the region from a bloc, to a battlefield.
The competition is between a wave of voter energy which has rallied against the Republicans, and the Rovian tactic of unleashing the ghosts, ghouls, and goblins at the fringes of the right to create an air of chaos, near revolution, militia urgency – throwing true believers into a millennarian ecstatic fugue state. This reimagining of election day as an all Hallow’s Eve, an orgy of lawless display of raw venom in order to engage in voter suppression, had the effect of tilting the 2000 election in Florida, and the recount. However, while the fervor of its movement of fears and smears driven by well oiled RNC gears is undiminshed, the voters it looks to intimdate are, in many cases, home, with their votes safely counted.
Cracking the Squalid South
It has been traditional and historical for the deep south to speak with one voice. The South is a region which, more than any other, is associated with political unanimity. However, the South is an onion composed of many shells. There is Texas, there is the Tidewater South, there is the Mississippi River, there is Appalachia, there is the Atlantic Coast, and there is Florida. These different regions blend to produce a range of politics based on water, oil, agriculture, the military, and the new south of retirement and tourism – the lifestyle south. These various elements are shifting. Appalachia was once the most Democratic of regions, it is now the most Republican. The tidewater is the deepest of reactionary areas, Texas is by turns tightfisted and open handed. The new south is based on electronics, communication, finance, research, and government, as much as any traditional activities. The New South is a more liberal south, because it is a more cosmopolitan south, and one which understands its connection to the whole country and to government. Hence, in this election, the “solid South” has been a patchwork of races. The important races? Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi’s special election, Kentucky, and Texas.
Virginia Virginia was a state which, despite being the home to the Confederate capital, was among the most reluctant to leave the Union. It is politically leaving the Republican South, and the figure who has been the fulcrum of this more than any other, is Mark Warner. Telegenic, thin, active, with a bright and piercing gaze, he is not the slow Southern gentleman of myth, but he is also not the sham of the Gingrich greed wave. Instead, Mark Warner may well be the ultimate pragmatist, taking his chances where they are found, and shifting direction to cut to the heart of where he can do the most. His term as governor laid the ground work for a shift in the state’s politics, and now his race for Senator confirms that a bright and active representative in Congress is what the Virginia of the coming decade wants. It is a cliche to say that the northern counties have turned blue with the coming of more government workers and government contracts. Warner’s opponent, Gilmore, has been nearly invisible, and Warner’s election nearly inevitable.
Odds: Warner is safe.
North Carolina Kay Hagan is the angel of a potential new Democratic South. She is riding the crest of a confluence of forces. The state has had a populist core which could, occasionally, raise a Democrat to state wide office, but a reactionary base which, if motivated by race baiting, or appeals to theocratic militarism, or both, could sting even the best candidates. Liddy Dole is a machine Republican, and she felt the weight of the triple shift of the electorate. The new waves of Obama voters, plus the boom in “Research Triangle,” plus the pain of the housing crunch in the coastal areas which grew on the climate and convenience, began to tear down the one time presidential aspirant. She struck with the most vicious slur of a campaign which has seen the Republicans pedal everything from guilt by handshake to another version of voting while black. Even with this victory eludes her. This is the race where field work and last minute volunteering will decide the race. Dole needs to stop voters from voting, because the race tilts away from her as the condemnation of her smears have led to a backlash, that you can join in on.
But it is Kay Hagan herself which is the reason for this focal moment. A lesser candidate would not have gotten traction, nor brought the disparate parts into harmony. She is, on one hand, a conservative Democrat on issues such as the budget, education, taxes, and immigration. However, she has taken strong populist stands on civil rights, Iraq, trade, and ethics, and looks to be a Senator much in the range of John Tester, or Jim Webb: trying to balance broad promises, with very narrow means. What makes the blend work is that Kay is relentless in explaining to people her positions. She does not rest. In a campaign where Dole has promised more of the same, Kay Hagan has simply promised more.
Odds: Kay Hagan has about a 60% chance of winning the seat, and it would mark a landslide in the making for the Democratic Party.
Georgia No Republican in the South is more hated that Saxby Chambliss by Democratic partisans of all ideological stripes. He came to power on the dirtiest campaign in recent memory, which is an accomplishment, and has left behind an undistinguished record as a legislator. He has been nothing more than a reliable Rubber Stamp Republican. However, this race is relatively quiet. The conservative Democrats that won election in 2006 in the House have helped for a base which has let Jim Martin rise to striking distance. In many respects, he is the old south, the old populist south, against the Gingrichite machine writ large. Georgia is the state that gave us a Presidential candidate who had the mantra “I will not lie to you.” Jim Martin comes from a south that has the feel of To Kill A Mockingbird. He has worked to protect crucial services in times of recession, prevented seniors from slipping through the budget cracks. If Warner is an entrepreneur, and Kay Hagan a new Democrat, Jim Martin, in his face, bearing, and history, from public school, through Vietnam, through legislator always helping the less fortunate, is the south that believed in true community, charity, and Christian values of alleviating the suffering of those afflicted by misfortune. Chambliss, backed by more money and machine power than Martin, has held the edge in visibility, but his lead has eroded. The only polls are stale. What could be the deciding factor? The wild card that Georgia is home to libertarian candidate Bob Barr, and there is a libertarian on the ballot for Senate. Because of the possiblity of a run off, this race is receiving close attention. It speaks highly of Jim Martin, when an attack ad might be able to drag Chambliss down, that he has remained on the high road.
Odds: Sleeper race of this cycle is now 55% of Jim Martin in the Senate on election day, or in what could be a defining capstone run off race.
Kentucky Kentucky is the part of the South that seems farther south than it is. Divided between mountains and plains, cut by the Ohio river and within sight of midwestern cities like Cincinnati, it remains in lore closer to Dixie than Cleveland. Mitch McConnell, as the minority leader of the Republicans, would seem to be safe, or only in danger in the wet dreams of those who want payback for Daschle’s defeat. Lunsford was an unknown. However, Kentucky, like North Carolina and Georgia, has a bubbling under plurality for the Democratic Party, which is held in check only by the barest of margins. The aging Bunning nearly fell in his race, and the ultimate Senate appartchnick, the sultan of standstill, who worships at the obelisk of obstructionism every morning, is in danger. Even if he wins, his absence on the rest of the Republican efforts in the Senate has been palpable. Without leadership, their message has been adrift, and their fundraising hobbled.
Lunsford has hit Mitch McConnell from the right on defense issues: hammering McConnell’s votes that kept Americans ill-equipped in Iraq, and the aimless occupation which has cost the lives of so many. Lunsford has also slammed McConnell for his mismanagement of economic issues, and professed unconcern for what caused the credit crisis. While his positions won’t set progressive hearts aflutter, he is a favorite of Hillary Clinton, and of the centrist donors in general.
Odds: Lunsford is stuck short of the goal, as many people still are not ready to send McConnell home. However, he’s been in trouble for a long time. And the swirl of rumors that constantly hangs around his sexual preference has formed a part of this. However, the most recent rolling average of polls shows that McConnell has been ahead the whole month, and that absent a last minute surge, he will be re-elected.
Odds: Lundsford has about a 35% chance of winning, but has tied down the Republican leadership on defense.
Mississippi Special Undistinguished Republican fill in Roger Wicker has benefitted more than any other Republican in the country from the racial slurs and attacks of the last few weeks. Not long ago he was below the 50% needed to avoid a run off, and was only a sliver of votes ahead. However, Mississippi is a state where a Democrat must bank an overwhelming win in the African-American vote, and then run right to get a sliver of the dixiecratic vote. The constant grind of dog whistle politics makes this race one where former governor Musgrave must rely on a pure attention to turn out above all else, and hope that while the good old boys are against him, they aren’t that motivated to do something about it.
Odds: Musgrave has about a 25% chance of making up the gap, but the race is breaking away from him hard.
Texas Was not supposed to be a race, and to some extent isn’t one. Except that it is. Texas is the capital of the new Republican Party, the place where its adherence to corruption and resource extraction, combined with a cheapskate approach to problem solving, so long as the problem isn’t going to be solved by the suitable application of missile technology, has flowered and become the epicenter of the Republican philosophy at work. The last three Republican terms have been Bush terms, but also new Texas Terms. Senator Cornyn is the second most conservative Senator by most measures, trailing only Coburn of Oklahoma. Rick Noriega is widely thought of as a quick study, a good talker, and a hard working candidate. During the worst days of the financial meltdown, he moved into striking distance of Cornyn, but has since faded. Even turn out hopes seem distant at this point. This race ought never to have been anything, but it is because in many respects, Texas is also the epicenter of anti-Republicanism. No place is there a greater contempt for the all hat no cattle Bush reality, and a humor laden contempt for the way that great opportunity has turned into another bungled oil boom. This race is all but over, but it continues to create what may be the core of a Texas that will swing away from the new Republican Party in ways that will cost it dearly, in that that new Republican Party relies on corruption, and unaccountable corruption at that.
No place have the two parties staked more on their pure campaign apparatus than in the South. Obama on voter registration and early voting, combined with hard swings to the right on guns, taxes, and social issues. The Republicans have relied on wedge issues, geographic solidarity, fear mongering, defense pork, and less than genteel corruption. To no small extent, Obama’s coattails will be measured here. The stab into the South, with its almost hypnotic attraction for Democratic strategists has come at the cost of putting Minnesota, which should have been safe, into play, and leaving comfortable Republican incumbents elsewhere. It has produced, however, a blow to the confidence of the Republicans that has rattled their entire game. For the Republicans, the ability to hold on to the core on defense is what will limit the Democrats on judgeships and a host of party issues.
It is likely that the Democrats will pick up two seats in the South, Virginia plus one other, and very possible that they will pick up three, with the focus being on Georgia. If I had to pick I would say that Kay Hagan wins a squeaker, and Georgia goes into overtime, with many Libertarians sitting out the rematch, and giving a native son a place in the Senate. This would mean that instead of giving a particular strategy to a solid south of uniform representatives, it would mean that the south would be home to a diverse group of Democrats, not cast in any one mold. Warner is a bi-coastal entrepreneur at home anywhere, Martin is as rooted as the soil, and Hagan is the image of the Clintonian New Democrat. Each brings a different style and focus. Hagan is a populist conservative, Warner a techno-progressive, and Martin a traditional kind of Christian Democrat who would not have been out of place running in 1932, 1952, 1972 or 1992.