Southern Dems: We’re not dead yet!

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The past two elections have been especially brutal for Southern Democrats. This year is daunting again, as they face a difficult Senate map and have seen retirements already take a toll.

But amid the gloom, there are brief flickers of hope in 2014 for a party long in turmoil in the region. Holding onto one or two of a trio of Senate seats up in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina would boost their bruised egos. And new opportunities in Georgia races for both Senate and governor are becoming especially brighter.

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“I’m not ready to take out my paint brush and paint the South blue just yet, but as Mark Twain said, rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated,” said Democratic strategist Allan Crow. “I think the Democratic Party has a pulse again in the South.”

Crow’s home state of Georgia is where Democrats are most bullish about their chances of two unlikely pickups.

Michelle Nunn is the candidate many in the GOP privately worry about the most — a former charity executive and the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D), her apolitical background hasn’t given Republicans a lot of ammunition, as they grapple with their own messy primary for the right to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

Democrats were already excited when state Sen. Jason Carter, the 38-year-old grandson of former President Carter, agreed to run against Gov. Nathan Deal. But the GOP incumbent’s bumbled response to last week’s snowstorm that paralyzed the metro Atlanta region has given them fresh attacks to use, as they seek to knock off Deal.

There are similarities between changes in the Peach State and another former Southern stronghold: Virginia, home to the former capital of the confederacy. Democrats swept off-year contests there last fall for the first time in decades and hold both Senate seats, though Republicans look to force Sen. Mark Warner (D) into a real race.

Democratic victories in shifting states like the Old Dominion have become easier, and almost expected, in recent years as the fast-growing and diverse D.C. suburbs and Tidewater areas have become politically dominant, helping President Obama carry the state twice.

Changing demographics is one reason North Carolina has become a perennial battleground, too. Bolstered by the liberal Research Triangle corridor and other fast-growing metro centers, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is probably the targeted incumbent Democrats feel best about.

Georgia isn’t quite there yet, but with projected rises in the state’s African-American and Hispanic populations and fast-booming Atlanta suburbs, the state’s GOP lean can’t be taken for granted much longer.

If Georgia is the land of Democratic opportunity, then Arkansas is the Democrats’ firewall. Republicans notched wins there in 2010, ousting longtime incumbents, but now it’s up to Democratic lawmakers to stop the GOP tide from advancing. Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is seen as the most endangered incumbent senator in the country, but he’s not been written off just yet. And former Blue Dog Rep. Mike Ross has Democrats optimistic he can beat former GOP Rep. Asa Hutchinson to succeed popular, term-limited Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.

For Southern Democrats, just having viable candidates running is an achievement, and the fact that they’ve landed legacy candidates like Nunn and Carter so early is a testament to their renewed focus on the region. Even in Arkansas, getting the retired Ross, who had initially passed on a run, was a recruiting win.

Other beleaguered state parties haven’t had as much luck, sometimes failing to even field candidates or running embarrassing nominees with checkered pasts, like what has happened in Tennessee and South Carolina in recent memory.

There are other spots of lesser hope for Democrats in the South that are worth watching in 2014. The close Kentucky contest between Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will continue to draw national attention.

Wendy Davis is another national player who’s getting plenty of headlines for her run for Texas governor but turning the Lone Star State blue is still an uphill battle.

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) only narrowly beat Democrat Vincent Sheheen in 2010, a great year for the GOP. Haley’s approval ratings have rebounded some after several state controversies, but Sheheen is back for a rematch.

And in Florida, which, with its influx of Northern retirees isn’t purely Southern, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) won an easy reelection in 2012, and newly minted Democrat Charlie Crist is expected to give GOP Gov. Rick Scott a very tough race.

The political reality for Democrats is, if they want to eventually win back control of the House and keep their Senate majority, there’s no calculation that doesn’t run through Dixie.

“There’s not a path to a majority that ignores an entire region of the country,” said one Democratic strategist who’s worked extensively in the South. “By fielding competitive candidates and having good senators like Pryor, Hagan and [Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)], it expands the party to continue to be the big tent party. We have to continue to fight and work in all regions — win or lose in 2014.”

Still, even elder statesmen in the party who have lived through tumultuous decades know it won’t be an overnight resurgence in the South that can save their party, but small victories are ones they don’t take for granted as they continue to hope an evolving region will play into their favor — eventually.

“These things don’t change quickly. What’s going to have to change in the South is basic population, demographic changes,” said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, who pointed to Virginia and North Carolina as taking advantage of those growing shifts.

“We’re still a ways from Democrats regaining the strength they had two or three decades ago,” Fowler admitted.

But in a party that’s had little to crow about down South, Democrats will be thankful for even minor wins in the region come November.