Rethinking Red States

Monday, July 24, 2006

If you want to understand why Democrats are the minority party in Congress, look at four states: Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky. Before the 1994 elections, when Democrats still controlled both chambers, these Southern states had 24 Democratic House members and 14 Republicans. Among senators, there were five Republicans and three Democrats.

Look today. There are 24 GOP House members and 15 Democrats, and all eight senators are Republicans.

Democrats acknowledge that their prospects for regaining control are dim until they start winning elections in this region. Several of this year's races are lab experiments in this effort, with Democrats testing new types of candidates, messages and media.

They hope to underscore that they do not fit stereotypes of Democrats as cultural liberals, and they hope to win voters with a mix of economic populism and traditional values. There is talk of raising the minimum wage and creating more jobs, but usually little about abortion or gun control.

Phil Kellam, who is challenging Rep. Thelma D. Drake in Virginia's 2nd District, is airing a TV ad that calls for ending the sale of violent video games to children and blocking their access to violent or pornographic Web sites. President Bush won Drake's district with 58 percent of the vote in 2004. But Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine won the same precincts in 2005.

Lately, Democrats have been thrilled to find their candidates in striking distance in some of these races. One of the Democrats' top targets is North Carolina's 11th District, where former Washington Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler is trying to unseat Republican Rep. Charles H. Taylor. In Virginia, James Webb, a former Republican who served as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, is being watched closely by Democrats to see if he can make Sen. George Allen sweat for reelection. In Kentucky's 4th District, Ken Lucas (D) is hoping to reclaim the seat he held from his 1998 until his retirement in 2004. Freshman Rep. Geoff Davis (R) is buoyed by Bush's 27-point margin in 2004.

In Tennessee, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who is black, is trying to break a racial barrier by winning an open Senate seat against Republican candidate Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga.

-- Shailagh Murray


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