Senate races

‘Clinton Democrats’ falling flat

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Self-proclaimed Clinton Democrats are struggling this election cycle, and not even their powerful namesakes may be enough to save them.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have tried to turn on their charms to help centrist Democrats in Kentucky and Arkansas. But as candidates in both states are slipping, help from the party’s preeminent power couple is falling short.  

In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes has clung tightly to the Clintons as she tries to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). 

{mosads}The former president has already campaigned with the Democratic hopeful twice and will head to the Bluegrass State again next week. The former secretary of State held a rally with Grimes on Wednesday, as Grimes kept emphasizing she was a “Clinton Democrat through and through” after flatly refusing to say whether she voted for President Obama. 

The former president — a master of the retail politics central to places like Arkansas — is the featured guest in his native state this weekend. Democrats there are trying to save vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and push former Rep. Mike Ross (D) into the governor’s mansion. Pryor even took a selfie on stage with Bill Clinton this month, in an attempt to illustrate how close he is to his state’s favorite son.

Despite their close ties to the Clintons, the candidates’ efforts to distance themselves from a deeply unpopular current president may not work.  

That raises questions not only for Hillary Clinton as she ponders a 2016 White House bid, but also for the Democratic Party as it finds itself increasingly unsuccessful in the Deep South and Appalachia.

“I’m constantly puzzled when other people are surprised that there hasn’t been this Democratic revival in the South,” said Thomas Schaller, a professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County who has argued that Democrats need to make the South less of a priority. “My feeling is that the underlying fundamentals in the region work against the Democrats.”

Clinton allies and longtime observers of the 42nd president and his wife say that if anyone can make Southern states a battleground in 2016 — and at least force the GOP to use valuable resources to keep the South red — it’s Hillary Clinton.

There’s plenty of reason to believe the Clintons view the situation the same way. The former president will follow up his three-day swing through Arkansas this weekend with a trip to Louisiana to stump for Sen. Mary Landrieu on Monday, in another attempt to help the vulnerable Democrat. Hillary Clinton will campaign with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) next Saturday. 

“These appearances are really the beginning of their campaign to redefine the Democratic Party in their own image, [to] a party that can carry states like this,” said Al Cross, a veteran journalist and University of Kentucky professor.  

“I think the Clintons believe they can carry Kentucky and I think that’s one reason why we’ll see them here again,” Cross added, also pointing to the Clintons’ longstanding friendship with Grimes’s father, Jerry Lundergan. 

Clinton allies also insist that both Bill and Hillary have the sort of innate understanding of Southerners that has become increasingly rare within the Democratic Party. While more of the party’s base increasingly lives in urban areas, they are among the few surrogates who can reach blue collar and rural voters. 

Paul Begala, a Texan and former Clinton adviser, said the Clintons ‘love Southerners, and I think that is reciprocated.“ 

“It’s as simple as that,” Begala wrote in an email. “They don’t view us as some kind of weird alien being. They see us as their friends and neighbors and cousins and friends — because we are.”

Hillary Clinton even leads some potential GOP rivals in very early 2016 presidential polling in states like Georgia and Kentucky, and could expect a higher, more diverse turnout in a presidential year. The South’s changing demographics — with eight of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Latino populations — would also help a 2016 Clinton campaign.

But the problems facing incumbents, even Landrieu and Pryor, who come from perhaps the preeminent Democratic families in their respective states, underscore the difficulties Democrats face in the South. 

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the Harvard University-educated Iraq War veteran challenging Pryor, has tried to downplay Clinton’s role to focus on Obama. 

“I’m not worried about Bill Clinton’s support for Mark Pryor,” Cotton told ABC News. “I’m worried about Mark Pryor’s support for Barack Obama.”

Obama captured as few as one of every 10 white voters in some Southern states in both 2008 and 2012. Even in his overwhelming 2008 victory, Obama captured fewer votes than the Democrats’ 2004 nominee, John Kerry, in dozens of rural counties in places like Arkansas and Kentucky that were both overwhelmingly white and relatively uneducated. 

Since then, Democrats in Arkansas lost control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. In Kentucky, voters are also now more likely to call themselves Republicans than Democrats. 

Bill Clinton carried Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky in his 1992 and 1996 presidential wins, at a time when many more voters remembered the days of Democratic dominance in the South before the Civil Rights movement and after FDR’s New Deal.

That gives some Clinton backers hope that Hillary could combine the support her husband found among white working class voters in those states with the coalition — highly educated, often suburban voters — that Obama used to capture Virginia and Florida twice and North Carolina in 2008.

“You put a Democrat with 20 percent of the white vote in Mississippi and it becomes in play,” said Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas and a longtime friend of the Clintons.

Schaller agrees that no Democratic candidate would likely do better than Hillary Clinton in the South in 2016. But he also stressed that even if Clinton would do well in the South in 2016, that wouldn’t mean a broader Democratic renaissance is coming below the Mason-Dixon line.

“I think she’s a good test case for how competitive the Democrats can be in the South, because she can pair her husband’s appeal in the more rural South and presumably draw support in the places where Obama did well,” Schaller said. “If she can’t start flipping states, then who is?”

Tags Alison Lundergan Grimes Arkansas Senate Bill Clinton Hillary Clinton Kay Hagan Kentucky Senate Mark Pryor Mary Landrieu
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