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Can Democrats Find Their Southern Charm?

Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, right, listens to the reply of Republican candidate Matt Bevin during a debate.
Timothy D. Easley
Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, right, listens to the reply of Republican candidate Matt Bevin during a debate.

After a rough few decades for Democrats in the South, there's a recent bright spot: They could win governor's races in both Louisiana and Kentucky this year.

If they do, it would stand in stark contrast to the region's current politics, where Republicans have almost entirely taken over.

This isn't to say Democrats are suddenly on the verge of a resurgence in the South, but there are ways they can be successful under the right circumstances.

First, state races have proven to be within reach of Democrats as compared to federal contests, if they have the right kind of candidate. If Democrats can succeed in finding candidates with some moderate credentials, successfully separate them from the national party and exploit Republican divides and disunity, they can win.

Both the Kentucky and Louisiana races feature candidates with some moderate credentials, in the mold of the near-extinct Blue Dogs, that can appeal to independents and disaffected Republicans.

In state contests like a governor's race, voters are picking a more autonomous leader. In federal elections, conservatives have been hesitant to vote for Democrats they might even like for fear it could tip the balance of power in Washington and enable a national Democratic Party they don't identify with.

There's some luck required though, too. In both the Kentucky and Louisiana contests, Republicans have struggled with flawed candidates, giving Democrats another boost that could tip the scale come November.

"If Democrats happen to win one or both, I think it's more about Republicans losing those races than Democrats winning them," said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, which tracks races. "In both states, Republican nominees have found new ways to put the races into play."

Kentucky: Democrats Try To Overcome The National Environment

In the Kentucky race, set to be decided on Tuesday, GOP nominee Matt Bevin brings plenty of baggage to the table. The wealthy venture capitalist made enemies among the Republican establishment when he launched an unsuccessful primary campaign last year against now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Now eyeing the governor's mansion, he won a bitter primary last May by just 83 votes.

Matt Bevin, who lost the 2014 Senate primary to Mitch McConnell, narrowly won the GOP primary for governor earlier this spring.
Timothy D. Easley / AP
Matt Bevin, who lost the 2014 Senate primary to Mitch McConnell, narrowly won the GOP primary for governor earlier this spring.

Democrats have found it easy to turn criticisms McConnell and his allies used against Bevin back around, and they argue his Tea Party leanings put him too far out of step with Kentucky. He's tried to mend fences since then, and McConnell is backing him. But Democrats have hammered him for late tax returns, changing issue positions and more. The latest Bluegrass Poll shows Bevin narrowly trailing Democratic nominee Jack Conway heading into Election Day.

Democrats are actually defending this seat though, and they have been successful with statewide candidates in Kentucky. In fact, the state has only had one Republican governor in the past 40 years, and the current popular Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear is term-limited.

"When we talk about social issues, this is a pretty conservative electorate," explained Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. "But when you look over at economic issues, this is not a particularly conservative state ideologically."

Still, Republicans felt like this was their year to snap the streak with many of the state's longtime Democratic voters shifting more conservative. Plus, resistance to Obama is at a peak in the state. In 2012, 42 percent of Democrats chose "uncommitted" in the primary instead of voting for the president.

Conway, the Democratic nominee, has run statewide before — he's the current attorney general, but lost the 2010 Senate race to Rand Paul. Observers there have pointed out he's not exactly a centrist — he supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, for example. But on an issue near and dear to Kentucky voters — coal — he's opposed the White House. He was the only Democratic attorney general to join a lawsuit against the EPA challenging its carbon-emission regulations.

Republicans are still trying to brand Conway as Obama-lite, and every ad run by the Republican Governors Association ties the Democratic nominee to the president.

Louisiana: Haunted By Scandals Past

Democratic nominee John Bel Edwards has been touting his socially conservative credentials, running ads showing him hunting and saying he'll protect Second Amendment rights. In one ad, he and his wife explain why they're against abortion — they say they were urged to abort their daughter who had been diagnosed in utero with spina bifida, but today she's grown and is soon to be married.

Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, left, walks past U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., as they take their places before a debate.
Gerald Herbert / AP
Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, left, walks past U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., as they take their places before a debate.

Louisiana's unusual election system also helped Edwards, the state House minority leader. The all-party primary was held last weekend, and since he was the only major Democratic candidate, the Republicans spent months battering each other.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter emerged with the second-most votes to advance to the Nov. 21 runoff, but he's badly damaged. Vitter entered the race as the front-runner, but his GOP opponents hammered him over the "D.C. Madam" scandal. In 2007, Vitter was named as a client in the prostitution ring. With his wife by his side, Vitter apologized for a "serious sin" and even went on to win re-election in 2010.

Polls show Vitter trails Edwards in their runoff in three weeks. And he hasn't been helped by other Republicans in the state either. Neither of his primary challengers have endorsed him yet, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — who has a frosty relationship with Vitter and has seen his own popularity in the state decline — has also sidestepped questions about his support for the Republican nominee.

Martin Johnson, a professor of politics and communication at Louisiana State University, said Vitter's decision to embrace his front-runner status early on and run as the de-facto incumbent — even skipping many debates — wasn't a smart one.

"His opponents had more opportunities to attack him," Johnson said. "That probably contributed to his decline through the fall as well."

Republicans are again trying to tie Edwards to an unpopular President Obama, but those charges are harder to stick against the Louisiana Democrat than it is against Conway in Kentucky.

"I think Vitter is going to try to characterize Edwards as a very liberal national Democrat, but that's very difficult to do," Johnson said.

Finding A Winning Formula

The challenge for both Edwards and Conway is still to overcome fundamentals that may be against them in their state. With more and more blue-collar, white men who had long voted Democratic fleeing to the GOP, Democrats have to find a different equation to be successful.

"The formula for Southern Democrats is to put together a coalition of African-American voters and some white voters," Johnson said. "The problem [losing Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu] had last year was that she was very strong in her support in the African-American community, but she really had a difficult time retaining a sufficient amount of the white vote to stay in office."

It will be critical for Edwards to ensure that black voters actually turn out, though. That's much harder in an off-year election.

Kentucky is much less diverse, and Conway has the benefit of already having voters who may be used to electing their constitutional officers as Democrats but voting Republican nationally.

"We tend not to think of governors races about being about those big, national hot-button fights," Voss said. "When you're voting for Senate, you're viewing it in terms of national policy implications. This is not a race where voters are nationalized in their thinking necessarily."

These races are prime opportunities for Democrats, but the fact that it takes a perfect storm of having an appealing nominee plus a deeply flawed Republican opponent underscores just how difficult winning in the South is for Democrats.

"Republicans have the advantage in Southern races, but they still need a united party," Gonzales said. "Vitter and Bevin have been unable to unite the party, and we'll see if it ends up being their demise."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.