A Holy-Roller Democrat

By Dan Gilgoff
Sunday, April 29, 2007

John Arthur Eaves baptized three of his four sons in the Jordan River, an event he highlights in a radio campaign ad. The candidate for governor of Mississippi thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned, calls for reintroducing school prayer and wants limits on riverboat gambling -- all hot-button issues among evangelical pastors. A baby-faced trial lawyer with a flair for self-promotion, Eaves is employing the same tried-and-true campaign tactics as many Republicans running in the South, the Midwest and other culturally conservative parts of the country.

But Eaves isn't just any old run-of-the-mill evangelical candidate -- he's a Democrat. And he's challenging not just any first-term governor, but Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Goliath in the GOP, with possible designs on the White House.

At stake is more than the governor's mansion in Jackson, but arguably the future of the national Democratic Party. That's because Democrats have almost completely lost their grip on the South, with the number of Southern Democratic U.S. senators dwindling from 20 in 1980 to five today. In the past two presidential elections, the Democratic ticket lost every Southern state. And despite Democratic Senate pickups in the so-called Upper South states of Missouri and Virginia in 2006, competitive statewide races that year in Tennessee and Florida went to Republicans. A win by Eaves "would be a shot across the bow to the Republican Party that Democrats can compete in the South again," says Mike Mikus, Eaves's chief campaign strategist.

But an Eaves victory would also be a shot across the bow to the Democrats' liberal base, raising the question of how far the party is willing to go in jettisoning its support for abortion rights, gay rights and a high wall of separation between church and state for a chance at electoral success. Eaves's campaign asks: Just how big should the Democrats' tent be?

The political calculus behind Eaves's candidacy is simple. By neutralizing the traditional GOP advantage on social issues, Democrats hope to focus on economic issues, where, particularly in poverty-stricken Mississippi, they believe they have the upper hand. Eaves, a graduate of Ole Miss and now a wealthy lawyer whose dirty-blond mane is a fixture in legal ads across the state, is an unabashed populist. He supports universal health care, large increases in public school funding and a so-called living wage. He attacks Barbour for opposing a "tax swap" that would slash the grocery tax and raise the tobacco tax and for pushing 50,000 low-income residents off state Medicaid rolls.

Eaves roots his populism in the same evangelical Christianity as his social positions. "A lot of people ask me, 'How are you a Democrat and a Christian?' " he says in his Jackson office, festooned with photos from his 1996 trip to Israel to baptize his sons. "And I say, 'Because I'm a Christian, I'm a Democrat.' Christ healed the sick, reached out to the poor and came to tell us the truth, which today would translate into support for health care and education. Christ came to help people, and I believe that's the role of the Democratic Party."

Eaves, whose father also ran -- unsuccessfully -- for governor as a Democrat, faces an uphill climb. At 40, he has already lost a bid for Congress and he aborted a 2003 challenge to the then-governor, a Democrat, after just two months. The most recent public polls, released late last year, put Barbour's approval rating at 59 percent. A longtime tobacco lobbyist with strong Republican fundraising ties, Barbour has said he'll raise $13 million for the race.

But Eaves's internal polls show that with the right messaging, Barbour's support could be brought below 50 percent. And in addition to tapping his trial-lawyer network, Eaves is expected to plow some of his own millions into the race. Eaves's most serious challenger for the Democratic nomination dropped out of the race last week; he will now face three others in an August primary.

Eaves appears to represent the next step in the Democratic Party's plan for making inroads among evangelicals and other serious churchgoers. After its 2004 drubbing, when all five retiring Southern Democratic senators were replaced by Republicans, Democrats reached out to "values voters." In 2005, Timothy M. Kaine, the winning Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate, reserved his first ads for Christian radio. In 2006, the Democratic Party persuaded a pro-choice candidate in Pennsylvania to drop her Senate bid to clear the field for the ultimately successful Robert P. Casey Jr., an abortion opponent.

But Kaine and Casey weren't outright religious conservatives. Eaves is.

So far, most liberal groups have kept quiet about Eaves, though he says that some Democratic consultants have declined to lend support because of his conservative social views. National liberal groups such as Planned Parenthood say that Eaves is an anomaly and that despite the successful 2006 candidacies of abortion opponents such as Casey in Pennsylvania and Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat, the party is fielding more pro-choice candidates. They point out that even culturally conservative states such as Montana and Virginia elected pro-choice Democrats to the Senate last November.

But Democrats took back Congress in 2006 because of dissatisfaction over the Iraq war and congressional corruption scandals, not by riding a pro-choice wave. Being tied to the liberal image of the Democratic Party has become such a liability in states such as Mississippi that its lieutenant governor changed parties in 2002, becoming a Republican.

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