By Sean J. Miller - 10/27/10 02:00 AM EDT
Nowhere are Democrats more clearly threatened with heavy defeat than in the South.
Nov. 2 looks set to reverse a trend of recent elections that suggested the blue party might claw its way back in states dominated for a generation by the GOP.
In 42 competitive districts polled in four weeks by The Hill, white Southern Democrats face stronger headwinds than any of their colleagues.
Democrats hold 59 Southern House seats and could lose a dozen of them — helping Republicans toward the net gain of 39 they need for control of the House.
“It’s fair to say that Democrats will be devastated in the South,” said pollster Mark Penn of Penn Schoen Berland, who conducted the poll. “I think the strongest deficits the Democrats are facing are in the South and in the Midwest.”
Martin Frost, a former Democratic congressman from Texas who headed Democratic campaign efforts in the House, agrees. “There is no question that this is a very tough year to be a white Democrat in the South,” he said. “The South is very tough territory for a Democrat.”
Reps. John Spratt (D-S.C.), Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) — with 70 years of congressional service between them — trail by double digits, according to The Hill’s poll. Spratt is down by 10 points; Boyd trails by 12, as does Edwards and Marshall is behind by 13.
Throughout the four weeks of The Hill’s polling, the Southern tsunami has been building, and it hasn’t been confined to long-term incumbents, even though incumbency is a negative among likely voters.
In the race for Rep. John Tanner’s (D) open seat in Tennessee, Democrat Roy Herron trailed Republican Stephen FincherStephen FincherRep. Fincher to retire Export-Import Bank takes step toward renewal Transportation deal includes Ex-Im renewal MORE by 10 points in Week Two of the survey. In the race for Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry’s (D) seat, Democrat Chad Causey lagged 12 points behind Republican Rick CrawfordRick CrawfordSouthern lawmakers fight to keep USDA catfish inspections Bringing US rice back to Cuba GOP lawmakers blast Obama for 'unprecedented' overreach MORE.
Freshman Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) was down five points to state Sen. Alan Nunnelee (R) in Week Three of The Hill’s survey.
These races may have shifted since being surveyed, but the Democratic deficits were outside the margin of error.
Anti-spending sentiment may be stronger in the South than in any other region, Penn suggested, and “this election does seem to be driven more than anything else [by] the desire to curb spending.”
This shows up in National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) TV ads targeting Spratt, the chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“No federal budget means no long-term plan to cut spending,” the voiceover says in one ad as a red line shoots upward across the screen. “Ask John Spratt, where is the budget?” The NRCC ran a similar spot against Edwards, another member of the Budget panel.
Voters in Spratt’s and Edwards’s districts who were asked whether they preferred that their member brought home federal money or cut spending came out for frugality. In Edwards’s district, 69 percent of independents preferred cuts, even if it meant less money for constituents. In Spratt’s district, that number was slightly lower, but a majority of independents still favored the cuts.
Voters in the earlier polls had similar thoughts on spending.
In the race for Tanner’s and Berry’s seats, 48 percent of voters said cutting the deficit should be a higher priority for the government.
Moreover, Penn said, Democrats are losing the “better-heeled independents” in the South, likely out of concerns about the economy.
“The thing that’s pretty decisive is the shift that we’ve seen among independent voters,” he said, “and how Democrats who basically won the hearts and minds of independent voters in the presidential election have lost them over issues like healthcare and spending in such a big way.
“At the same time … the independent stripe among voters is the fastest-growing kind of voter that there is,” he added.
Part of the reason Democrats aren’t doing well in the South is because of demographics, observers said.
“For older voters, the national debt is a big issue,” said Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida. “Concerns about Washington’s fiscal woes, not to mention our own state, really resonate with the population that’s 50 and over.”
The economy and the housing foreclosure crisis are also tied into that, she added. “I think a lot of the Southern states are in similar circumstances.”
The economy in the South has been hit hard by the recession. The Southern states all have unemployment rates hovering near 10 percent, with the exception of Texas, which has near 8 percent unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“A lot of this has to do also with where people are economically hurting and the notion that the economic strategy the administration has isn’t working and may be even backfiring,” Penn said.