Frustrated at being written off by their party’s presidential candidate in the 2000 election, Southern Democrats are demanding that the party leadership put more money and effort into winning at least a few Southern states in 2004.
“I’m not comfortable with our strategy as it relates to the South,” Georgia Democratic Chairman Calvin Smyre said at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee over the weekend in Washington.
At a presentation of 2004 strategy by DNC political director Traci Siegel to the DNC’s Southern Caucus, Smyre heatedly told Siegel, “We are not going to win the White House unless we win some Southern states.”
Smyre’s fellow Southerners applauded him as he complained, “The South was neglected” in the 2000 race. “We were just written off to a large degree.” He added, “You can’t talk about a national strategy until you talk about a Southern strategy.”
In 2000, Democratic candidate Al Gore carried no Southern or border states, not even West Virginia, which Democrat Mike Dukakis had carried in his 1988 loss.
The 11 states of the Old Confederacy have a total of 153 electoral votes, nearly 60 percent of the number needed to win the presidency. The South has gained electoral clout since 2000, adding six electoral votes as a result of reapportionment required by the 2000 Census.
In the last five presidential elections, the only Democratic candidate who has been able to win any Southern states has been Arkansan Bill Clinton, who carried four Dixie sates in 1992 and four in 1996.
The Southern DNC members demanded that the party leadership arrange to have the presidential contenders appear at a debate in the South, just as the party has sponsored debates in New York, and Albuquerque, N.M.
Four more DNC-sponsored debates are slated for Arizona, Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire, but none for Dixie.
‘GRAND STRATEGY’ QUESTIONED
“This ‘grand strategy’ of targeting some states, particularly outside the South, is a mistake,” Alabama DNC member Joe L. Reed said as he emerged from the Southern Caucus meeting. “Unless we get this back on track, we’re not going to win the next election.”
“George Wallace used to say, ‘There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two,’ but there is a distinct difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The big difference is how we treat poor areas. The Southern states are poor states, we need massive education, we need a massive infusion of federal money.”
Reed, who is black, said, “It’s going to take white leaders. White Democrats in the South are not doing enough to convey the message to ‘Bubba.’ We’ve got to make Bubba see that he and his family have a tie to the Democratic Party. White Southern leaders haven’t done enough of that.”
Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole added his voice to the Southerners’ chorus. “This electoral strategy of trying to see just how few states one can carry and still win is fundamentally flawed. It was part of the failed Gore strategy in 2000.”
Asked about these complaints, Gore’s 2000 campaign manager Donna Brazile told MSNBC.com, “We made a strategic decision in September (2000) to put resources in states where we thought we had a viable chance. The Gore campaign did compete in many Southern states including Florida, but the decision was made in September that we didn’t have the resources to compete (in the south outside of Florida). We competed until we couldn’t compete any more in the South.”
FOCUS ON TENNESSEE, LOUISIANA
Looking ahead to next year, Brazile said, “It is imperative that Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, perhaps Georgia and Florida be placed back on the battleground map.”
Being a Democratic leader in a state a Democratic presidential candidate has carried only once in the last 40 years, Mississippi Chairman Cole of necessity took a long-term view.
“There are some states in the South that are competitive in 2004, but beyond that, if the emphasis and the resources are invested in states like mine, even if we don’t win the electoral vote in my state in ’04, if the attention is paid in ’04, it will yield dividends in 2008.”
Asked if Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean’s support for legal same-sex unions would be a liability in the South, Cole said, “I’ve seen elections and political debate over the last few years dominated by stuff like the Rebel flag or a marble slab with the Ten Commandments carved on it, and I think issues like that are part of an upper-middle class conceit that we actually have time to talk about stuff like that.”
“I live in the poorest state in the union,” Cole explained. “Every time the weather turns cold in Mississippi you will see the death of some children or elderly people because they had unsafe apparatus to provide heat in their homes. We have tens of thousands of Mississippians out of work and hundreds of thousands without health insurance. If we can deal with the bread and butter issues here at home, and the life and death issues abroad — instead of getting into some Starbucks coffeehouse debate about stuff that doesn’t matter to the average Americans — then we can win this election.”
A POPULIST MESSAGE
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg agreed that Democrats can use economic populism to trump GOP social conservatism.
“Where the Democrats have had a challenge is on the social issues and moral values,” Greenberg said after making a presentation to the Southern caucus.
“But in this economy I think we can actually have something to say to some voters in the South. If you look at older white men — not generally a target group for Democrats — they are very anti-corporate, very populist, very worried about manufacturing jobs going overseas. I don’t think a Democrat is going to win without a populist message.”
Seeking to capitalize on the discontent at the Southern Caucus meeting Saturday, presidential contender Sen. John Edwards stepped up to the podium and said, “We have never elected a president who was a Democrat without wining at least five Southern states and we’re not going to start this time. We need to compete in every Southern state.”
The North Carolina senator promised that “when I am the Democratic nominee for president, I will compete everywhere in the South, we will campaign in the South, we will have the ground operations and we will spend money in the South.”
EYEING WESLEY CLARK
While some Southern Democratic leaders are backing native son Edwards, others are leaning toward another Southerner, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who they think would appeal to male voters, military veterans and some Republicans in the South.
Film actor and Democratic activist David Keith, who co-starred with Richard Gere in “An Officer and Gentleman” and now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., showed up at the DNC meeting to boost Clark’s candidacy.
“The independents and the disgruntled moderate Republicans are going to come over and vote for him, which they will not do for Dean,” Keith said. “Dean will do exactly what (1972 Democratic nominee George) McGovern did. He’ll polarize the party. We’ll lose every state. It will be a disaster. We need a centrist who understands foreign policy.”
Along with Clark, another Vietnam veteran, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is also sparking some Southern interest.
Mississippi DNC member William Wheeler said he is leaning toward Kerry because “the very first issue that is going to have to be addressed is the Democratic candidate has to show that he is going to protect Americans.”
Wheeler praises Kerry’s service as a Navy officer in Vietnam and adds, “The Bush people can’t cynically use that. They’ve used this terrorism issue as a cynical ploy. Kerry can address that, as Wes Clark could.”