A Balancing Act in the Upper South
Hopeful Democrats Tread Warily on Social Issues

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- They call this city the buckle of the Bible Belt.

Tucked in southwest Missouri, near Arkansas and Oklahoma, Springfield is home to 200 churches and five Christian colleges, including Jerry Falwell's alma mater, Baptist Bible. The Assemblies of God, a fast-growing force in the Pentecostal movement, is headquartered here. Local businesses include Divinely Inspired Cleaning, Integrity Imports and Grace Health Services.

Republicans in Springfield outnumber Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin. But one particular Democrat, U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, has been here 25 times since March. Her first two campaign ads ran only in the Springfield market. She spent primary night at the local party headquarters.

McCaskill thinks her close race against incumbent Jim Talent (R) will hinge on winning votes in places such as Springfield, where Democrats in recent years had virtually given up trying to break the GOP's lock on culturally conservative voters.

Across the upper South, from the Ozark hills to the Virginia Beach suburbs, Democratic candidates in House and Senate races are betting that they can overcome the unpopularity of their party affiliation by shrewdly combining biography, personal style and artful positioning on divisive social issues.

The theory is that Democratic positions on such issues as the economy and education are well-suited to many tradition-minded Southern voters -- if these voters can be reassured on cultural values.

"It's time that we start reading the Bible instead of knocking people over the head with it," McCaskill told a Springfield crowd last month.

Missouri is an ideal laboratory to see if the experiment can work. For decades, the Democratic formula for winning the Show-Me State was simple: Win big in the urban hubs of St. Louis and Kansas City. But that approach only works by not losing big in the rest of the state.

McCaskill, the state auditor and a former prosecutor, learned that the hard way. In 2004, she lost the race for governor to Matt Blunt, the son of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R). She campaigned hard in the cities but was barely seen in Springfield, which repaid her in kind with 37 percent of the vote.

"If I want to represent all of the state, I darn better get to speak to everybody in the state," McCaskill, 53, told a crowd here last month.

That sentiment is being expressed in four other upper South states: Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. In all these places, Democrats are testing different mixes of candidates, messages and outreach methods. Candidates do not talk about abortion unless they oppose it -- and many ardently do. They phone into Christian talk radio shows to challenge their critics. Their campaign Web sites show them in hunting garb and list what church service they attend.

McCaskill's campaign literature depicts her as a folksy next-door neighbor, drinking tea with other women at a kitchen table and wearing a denim jacket as she talks to farmers. She announced her candidacy in front of the family feed mill in Houston, a small town east of Springfield. In one ad, called "Family Style," McCaskill introduces her mom, Betty Anne, and recalls of her parents, "They couldn't give us much, but we got what we needed."

The Local Touch

McCaskill is touring the state's 114 counties in a recreational vehicle. At most stops, she chooses from issues that have been carefully vetted for local appeal. They include improving Medicare and Medicaid, expanding veterans benefits and developing alternative energy sources, such as ethanol and biodiesel -- fuels that are derived from Missouri crops.

Her effort has forced Talent to spend considerable time and money in a part of the state he might otherwise have safely taken for granted. The senator spent one recent Saturday knocking on doors in Springfield and nearby Joplin.

"It's important to me to get around the state, to listen and to ask people personally for their vote," he explained. An Oct. 2 Mason-Dixon poll showed that voters are split between the two candidates, at 43 percent each.

McCaskill and other Democrats are part of the most sustained effort by the party in 12 years to reverse the rout of 1994. Before that year's elections, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, the five upper South states in the 2006 spotlight were represented by 30 Democratic House members and 17 Republicans. The Senate count was seven Republicans and three Democrats.

Today, there are 29 GOP House members and 19 Democrats, and all 10 senators are Republicans.

One state that gives Democrats hope is Arkansas. Before the 2000 election, its congressional delegation was evenly split, with one Democratic and one Republican senator, and two Democratic and two Republican House members. Today, both senators and three out of four House members are Democrats.

Democrats in Disguise?

Rep. Mike Ross, a former state legislator from Texarkana, beat a four-term Republican in 2000 to win his seat, and this year is advising House candidates who are running in the upper South. He believes that the area's lower-income, high-school-educated, mostly white voters are more in sync than they realize with Democratic goals, such as raising the minimum wage and expanding health coverage.

The problem is on the social front. "In conservative to moderate districts, swing voters first want to know where you are on their values," Ross said. "Once they get past that, they will listen to you on everything else."

As a supporter of abortion rights, McCaskill fits into her party's mainstream on the biggest of all lightning rods for cultural conservatives. She responds by mostly not talking about it, and is attempting to define her values more broadly.

At Emily's List, an abortion-rights group that is supporting McCaskill, the candidate's silence is viewed not as a retreat but as shrewd politics. Chris Esposito, an Emily's List political operative who helped Rep. Dennis Moore get elected eight years ago in a GOP-leaning House district in Kansas, said McCaskill should talk about the issues that Missouri voters say they care about -- such as health coverage and national security.

The point, he said, is winning. "It's not exclusive to wedge issues," Esposito said. "It's fundamental to every campaign."

Another approach is the Heath Shuler model. The former Redskins quarterback and local real estate developer is challenging GOP Rep. Charles H. Taylor in Western North Carolina.

Shuler touts his antiabortion stand on the "faith and family values" page of his Web site, where he announces, "I am a pro-life Democrat." But he puts a Democratic spin on his stance: "I also believe that a commitment to life extends beyond the womb and means ensuring that all people have adequate health care, receive a strong education, and be given proper care in their later years."

It's Important to Fit In

For Democrats who grouse that the party is cutting ideological corners, their political leaders have a simple response. "You've got to get candidates who fit culturally and politically," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They're not running for national office. They're going to represent the people who live in that district."

The region's two other Democratic Senate candidates are Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is seeking an open seat in Tennessee, and Jim Webb, the challenger to Sen. George Allen (R) in Virginia. Neither is remotely typical. Ford, at 36, is young and black, and stresses his traditional upbringing. Webb, a former Republican, served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration.

One of Ford's television ads was shot inside the church his family attends. "I started church the old-fashioned way: I was forced to. And I'm better for it," Ford asserts into the camera. "Here, I learned the difference between right and wrong."

Republicans have responded to these appeals by suggesting that the Democrats are opportunists, saying whatever it takes to win. One ad for Talent lists the senator's conservative positions on immigration and tax cuts, and then rumbles, "And Claire McCaskill? McCaskill called Howard Dean her hero."

Another Republican Party ad points out her Democratic positions on tax cuts and a controversial domestic surveillance program, the female announcer intoning, "Typical McCaskill: She just tells you what you want to hear."

Changes in the Air

The Democratic experiment in Springfield coincides with important shifts that make the city more politically complex. The nearby country-music mecca of Branson has flooded the region with tourists and seasonal residents, and the vast lakes, green forests and slower pace of the Ozarks draw transplants from St. Louis, Kansas City and beyond.

The local state school changed its name from Southwest Missouri State to Missouri State University, in a bid to bolster its prestige. Springfield is also home to the biggest tourist attraction in Missouri: Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a hunting and fishing extravaganza that a local resident launched 25 years ago as a display in his father's liquor store.

"Folks are looking at the city in a more granular way," explained Roy Temple, a senior aide to the late Mel Carnahan (D), who was twice elected governor in the 1990s. "There are places in that market where we can do quite well. Those are votes that count just the same."

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry abandoned Missouri as a lost cause before the 2004 election, but he left behind a campaign operation that included 1,000 volunteers in the Springfield area. Their efforts, plus an increasingly receptive political climate, helped to elect local teacher Sara Lampe as the only local Democratic state legislator.

This year, Democrats recruited Jamie Schoolcraft, a young firefighter from a prominent southern Missouri family, and local music teacher Nancy Hagan to seek state House seats in districts adjacent to Lampe's. Doug Harpool, a former legislator who lost a state Senate race in 1994 by 700 votes, is trying again.

Looking for Converts

These candidates' deep local ties are pulling in voters such as Matt Lyons. His parents were Truman Democrats, but Lyons, 30, has been an ardent Republican since his teenage years, even naming his daughter Reagan. A few months ago, the disillusioned Sunday school teacher walked into Harpool's campaign office to talk about the war, rising education and energy costs, and Medicaid cuts by the GOP-majority legislature that had left poor people uninsured.

Lyons left with a Harpool bumper sticker, which he affixed to his green Saturn coupe. "I have loved politics all my life," said Lyons, an insurance worker. "But ideas are what motivate me. And my confidence in Republican solutions has declined."

The bumper of Lyons's Saturn also features a Talent for U.S. Senate sticker. Lyons is still squeamish about McCaskill over abortion. But other disgruntled Republicans have made the plunge.

"I'm completely fed up with every last one of them," said Bobby Higgins, a retiree and lifelong GOP voter, and now an active Democratic campaign volunteer. His list of grievances includes the war and prescription drug costs. "Republicans don't know anything about working-class survival," Higgins complained.

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