Weak state parties weigh down Senate Democrats in South

Weak state parties in the South risk hurting Democrats’ chances of holding — or gaining — critical Senate seats in 2014.

Struggles in Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina could force national Democrats, and the candidates themselves, to step in with big-dollar investments to build get-out-the-vote programs that are often left to the party’s state-level operations.

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“There’s a lot of drama in all of those places,” said one national Democratic strategist. “That means a lot more responsibility for coordinated campaigns in those states and really elevates the importance of field programs, things that are traditionally done by those state parties.”

All three states have endured turmoil at the top of their party structures, as scandals and power struggles have left efforts to build voter lists and recruit down-ballot candidates untended.

The consequences could be significant.  

Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) face tough reelection fights, and Democrats are excited about the prospects of former nonprofit CEO Michelle Nunn (D) in Georgia.

But those candidates face increased jeopardy if the state leaders tasked with fixing their parties fail.

“They have to be able to immediately restore confidence in the state parties,” Southern Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said of a trio of new party chairmen.

“You have to show people you’re competent in those states. They have to get it together organizationally and financially and have a plan. … It’s places like Georgia and Louisiana where we have more work to do.”

In Louisiana, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D), who is black, ousted former party chairman ex-Rep. Buddy Leach.

Leach, an old-time, white Southern Democrat, himself had replaced a former chairman accused by other Democrats of ruining the party’s finances and failing to recruit candidates.

Party insiders describe the battle between Peterson and Leach as ideologically and racially charged, pitting more centrist, rural (and mostly white) Democrats against liberal black Democrats from New Orleans.

Peterson recently caused a stir in the state, and nationally, when she said Republican opposition to ObamaCare was “about race.” Republicans jumped on the controversial comment, pressing Landrieu to say whether she agreed with her party chair.

In Georgia, Democrats selected former state House Minority Leader Dubose Porter to head the state party weeks ago, after forcing out former chairman Mike Berlon.

Berlon had his law license suspended and faced questions over how he was spending state party money. 

Porter’s win came despite many top Democrats in the state, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, backing another candidate.

North Carolina Democrats, meanwhile, are in rebuilding mode after a disastrous 2012, when one of their top committee staffers was accused of sexual assault.

The state chairman was eventually forced out, but the party was in such dire straits that the Obama presidential campaign essentially built a shadow effort in North Carolina for get-out-the-vote operations. 

The state party’s staff is now an entirely new team playing catch up.

Democrats admit their struggles in those states. But many argue national organizations, especially the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), can finance field operations and help candidates where the state parties lag behind.

“There are a lot of really smart folks at the DSCC, and I have no doubt they’ve been paying attention to these issues for a while,” said the national Democratic strategist.

DSCC Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter predicts the party will have no problem turning out voters in the targeted races.

“Democrats are very confident that there will be strong party operations across the country to partner with to build top-tier field campaigns in all of these states,” he says.

The 2012 cycle featured a number of states where the DSCC stepped in, including Montana and North Dakota, which aren’t bastions of Democratic organizational strength.

But heavy investment from the DSCC helped turn out voters and produce Senate victories in those states.

Voter registration and turnout is especially important in the three Southern states, where African-American turnout could make a huge difference.

Black turnout tends to lag in midterms and is likely to drop off from record highs with President Obama at the top of the ticket. In Atlanta alone, Democrats say there are more than 400,000 eligible but unregistered African-American voters.

Republicans have their own state party problems in other targeted states, which include Alaska, Colorado and Minnesota. Democrats also have more capable state parties in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Strategists say the field game can be replicated with or without state party help and that even the best run state parties usually need a huge cash injection from the national party to staff up for statewide campaigns.

“With state parties, some of the stuff they do is easily replaceable. When it comes to setting up a fully funded coordinated [field] operation, that can be done without them,” said one Democratic Senate campaign veteran. “It helps if they’re there as a partner, but the candidate or DSCC can solve that problem with money.”

The biggest concern comes when state chairmen create bad headlines for their candidates like Peterson did for Landrieu.

“Where a weak or divided state party gets to be an issue that you can’t solve with money is when it comes to messaging — when you have factions of the party openly fighting,” the source said.

— This story was corrected at 10:09 a.m. to reflect that Matt Cantor is the DSCC's deputy executive director.