In a recent op-ed, “Working to win the South wastes Democrats’ time and resources” (4/7), Zach Jones urged Democrats to forget the South and instead focus on more “winnable” states. Jones describes the South as the land of sweet tea, NASCAR and mud. This is an insulting description of the South, a place more culturally and politically nuanced than a Yankee snob like Jones would have readers believe. Although Jones shares the same interest in removing Bush from the White House as I do, his piece is factually inaccurate and strategically unsound.
Jones writes, “Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana nearly became the first Democrat to lose her Senate seat to a Republican ever in Louisiana.” Louisiana has had Republican senators in the past, although not since Reconstruction. While this is a historical quibble, Jones goes on to state erroneously that Louisiana “consistently goes Republican in presidential elections.” Bush won Louisiana in 2000, while Clinton won Louisiana in 1996 and 1992. Since 1976, Louisiana has chosen the Democratic candidate three times and the Republican candidate four times. There is nothing “consistent” about Louisiana’s presidential voting record that suggests it will automatically vote Republican in 2004.
Jones’ mention of Senator Landrieu’s race grossly misrepresents the prospects of Democrats in Louisiana by failing to acknowledge the unique circumstances surrounding Landrieu’s race. Louisiana has an open primary system in which candidates from any party can run, with the top two candidates competing in a run-off election. While Louisiana’s primary system is intended to remove power from political parties and give voters a larger say in democracy, it is not favorable to strong incumbent candidates. In the open primary, Landrieu did extremely well, winning 46 percent in a field of nine candidates. However, since Landrieu did not receive the necessary 50 percent to win the race outright in November, she was forced into a December run-off, over a month after all other Senate races had been decided. With no other races to spend their resources upon, the national Republican Party poured millions onto Louisiana’s airwaves and sent every available Republican heavy-hitter to Louisiana to campaign against Landrieu, including former President George H. W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senator-elect Elizabeth Dole, and President Bush himself. While Republican Suzanne Terrell had the full weight of the national GOP on her side, Landrieu refused support from national Democratic leaders and instead relied upon the independence of Louisiana’s voters, winning the race with a larger margin than when she first won her Senate seat in 1996.
Last November, Louisiana elected Democrat Kathleen Blanco as its first female governor. With the exception of one, all of Louisiana’s major state officials are Democrats. In the upcoming Senate election, whichever Democrat makes the run-off against the lone Republican David Vitter (a candidate with a nagging call girl problem) is favored to win the Senate race. The Louisiana Democratic Party is remarkably strong, and with a concerted effort from the national leadership, Democrats from other Southern states can create some unexpected victories for congressional candidates, and more importantly, John Kerry.
The outcome of the race in Louisiana is so questionable that Republicans will be using their most effective campaign spokesman when they send President Bush to address graduates of Louisiana State University in a commencement speech this May. Bush is scheduled to deliver only three commencement speeches this spring, and given the closeness of the presidential race and the limited time Bush has to campaign, one has to believe Karl Rove had some say in which states the president would be addressing college voters in and in which media markets the accompanying favorable news coverage would reach. If Republican strategists see it fit to spend their resources on a Southern state that they are not secure enough to leave alone, then Democrats should attempt to stoke these fears, thereby spreading Republican resources as much as possible. As Jones is fond of saying, “A political party spread too thin simply cannot win.”
Also in play is Kentucky, a Southern state Jones fails to consider in his flawed electoral strategy. In a recent special election for Kentucky’s sixth congressional district, Democrat Ben Chandler beat his Republican opponent by turning the race into a referendum of the Bush presidency. Bush won 55 percent of the district in 2000, but Chandler tapped into growing anti-Bush sentiment and won with 55 percent, 12 points over an opponent who had based her campaign largely in support of Bush’s policies. The victory upset the predictions of pundits who had written all of Kentucky off as Bush country, giving hope to Democrats that the South is still worth the fight.
Either out of ignorance or pure contempt for all things Southern, Jones fails to recognize the political volatility of the South. He represents the rarest and most useless species of Democrat, the condescending spinner who simply swallows and regurgitates the Republican lie that Democrats cannot win in the South. Ironically, Jones ponders the electoral map by asking, “If Kerry takes every state Gore won in 2000, he would have 260 of the necessary 269 electoral votes. So where will those extra nine votes come from?” Well, if Jones is so concerned about finding those nine magical votes to get Kerry into the White House, he should remember that Louisiana has exactly nine electoral votes. That’d be a good place to start.
Don Phan is a sophomore in Pierson College.