A Rising Awareness of Democrats in Confederate Border States

For the most part, the southern states along the Mason-Dixon Line vote Republican in presidential cycles.

For the most part, the southern states along the Mason-Dixon Line vote Republican in presidential cycles. As a result, they rarely receive the scrutiny that presidential swing state’s do, and it is easily forgotten that most of these states have a reliable and sizable Democratic base. The 2010 midterms have done a national service by reanimating the national focus on these socially conservative, Democratic states.

Perhaps the most widely studied of these states this year is Kentucky. After Dr. Rand Paul won the Republican primary for Senate, what was thought to be a likely pickup for the GOP suddenly came into play for Democrats. National attention was directed to the fact that Kentucky has a majority of registered Democrats. They had always been there but, from the perspective of the coasts, they look more like socially conservative Reagan Democrats – a no longer endangered species.

Democratic strategists became engaged in a fight to reenergize this abandoned segment of the party and to rescue Attorney General Jack Conway from the libertarian brand of conservatism espoused by Paul. As of September, 1.6 million of Kentucky’s 2.9 million registered voters are Democrats. Only 1 million are registered Republicans. Democrats lost 2.2 percent of their voting base in that state since 2008, but they still enjoy a sizable advantage in registered voters.

Another state where Democrats had been recently overlooked but where attention has been recently refocused is West Virginia. That state has always had a broad-based Democratic tradition and only votes conservative reliably during presidential contests. With 1.2 million registered voters, 656,000 call themselves Democrats. Only 348,000 are registered as Republicans. The national parties have lost strength in this state, Democrats have lost 2.8 percent of their registered voters in 2008 and Republicans have lost 1.3 percent. Meanwhile, independent party voters and unaffiliated voters increased by 18 and 12 percent respectively. This is a canary in a coalmine metric, and the national parties should be warned.

It was only in the 2000 that a Republican presidential candidate flipped that state – prior to then it was a reliably Democratic state both nationally and locally. West Virginia has resided in the Republican column in national races ever since. Today, deep resentment toward the Obama administration’s policies over the last two years has put the popular Democratic governor and Senate candidate in peril. Gov. Joe Manchin’s shoo-in race for the Senate to replace the late Sen. Byrd has become a tossup (recent outlier polls that purport to show a 10-point advantage for the Democrat omitted). 

A third state in this category of “Democratic red states” and that does not necessarily deserve the moniker “border state” since it was solidly inside the old Confederacy, is Tennessee. Tennessee has a stronger Republican tradition than either Kentucky or West Virginia. The Volunteer state had been represented in the 111th Congress by 4 Democrats and 5 Republicans. Two of those four Democrats, Rep. Bart Gordon and Rep. John Tanner, decided not to seek reelection this year. Both of their districts voted for McCain in 2008 and their open districts are rated as tossups today. But another Democratic district in Tennessee may be in play this season, Rep. Lincoln Davis’ 4th District. If this is true, than only Rep. Jim Cooper’s reliably Democratic 5th district can be considered a bastion of safety for Democrats in the whole of Tennessee.

On Friday, the NRCC released a Public Opinion Strategies DesJarlais internal poll that showed Tennessee’s 4th District to be a sleeper tossup, leaning towards Republicans. Davis faces physician and Republican congressional nominee, Scott DesJarlais. The POS poll shows DesJarlais leading Davis by five points – 45 to 40 percent, suggesting a close race.  

Davis is a conservative Democrat who voted against both House versions of the health care reform plans. He did, however, vote for the first stimulus and then majority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Davis is another Democrat that cannot be associated with what are viewed as unpopular votes by some, but is still pigeonholed as a member of the unpopular party in power.

Rep. Lincoln Davis has been the subject of negative ads purchased by several outside groups. Nearly $1 million in outside contributions have gone to ads that criticize Davis’ record – the most recent criticizes Davis for recommending his niece’s husband for a police job in 2003 despite his criminal record. The Davis camp has also been on the air with attack ads; the latest alleges that DesJarlais’s ex-wife may have sought her divorce from him following threatening domestic behavior. If those allegations are true, no charges have been filed.

Davis leads in cash on hand. According to federal documents filed with the FEC on Friday evening, Davis had more than $481,000 on hand. DesJarlais lagged significantly in fundraising with only $81,000. Davis’s camp has raised most of his funds through PACs, while DesJarlais has raised less than 4 percent of his funds through PACs. Both campaigns have spent roughly the same amount; Davis outspent his opponent by only $65,000 in the camping so far. 

This is another state where the internal dynamics should not be favorable to Republicans, but they are over performing due to the nature of the year. If this trend holds, Davis could wake up on November 3rd swept away by the “wave” of 2010. He may be in good and multitudinous company.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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