Democrats See Favorable Numbers, Hard Wins in Southern House Bids
By Terry M. Neal
BATON ROUGE, La.For the Democratic Party, looking to pick up House seats in the increasingly Republican South, two auspicious events converged here like the confluence of rivers at the bayou.
First, the Louisiana congressional district represented by Rep. Richard H. Baker (R) jumped from 13 percent black to 29 percent black in a 1996 reapportionment. African Americans traditionally vote Democratic.
Second, Marjorie McKeithen, a young, articulate lawyer, with prepackaged name recognition and an ability to raise money, let it be known she was serious about challenging Baker. McKeithen, who hails from one of Louisiana's most prominent political families, is among the party's best chances to dislodge a Republican incumbent in the South, Democrats believe.
In other southern states, however, the party has had mixed results in recruiting desirable candidates against some Republicans perceived to be vulnerable or in seats where demographics now favor Democrats. While different reasons have been given by those who declined to run, some Democrats and independent political observers say the common thread is the potential candidate's awareness of the party's recent electoral failures in the South.
Some of those seats, particularly in Georgia and North Carolina, represent recently created districts. New congressional maps were drawn in those states and Texas after federal courts rejected black and Hispanic majority districts as racially gerrymandered. Many districts, including Baker's, got large infusions of minorities. Even though most of those new districts were in place for the 1996 elections, Democrats said they needed more time to exploit advantages created by them.
With Republicans holding only an 11-seat majority, the battle for southern seats has particular significance. Democrats have historically been dominant there but have been losing ground quickly. When the rare incumbent has lost in the South in recent years, it usually has been a Democrat: Two Republican and seven Democratic House incumbents have lost in the past two elections.
"The Democrats are in real trouble this year, and it's evidenced by the fact that Richard Baker is someone they're looking at," said Mindy Tucker, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman. Baker won his last elections handily, with 69 percent and 81 percent of the vote, respectively, Tucker noted. And he won his first election, in 1986, in a district that demographically resembles the current one.
But Baker has not seen the likes of McKeithen, Democrats say. In his last race, for example, Baker's Democratic opponent raised less than $5,000. McKeithen had $107,000 in the bank by the end of last year and predicts she'll have nearly double that at month's end, when campaign finance reports are due.
Olivia Morgan, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman, said McKeithen fits the party's "general overall strategy" this year of recruiting candidates whose politics mesh more with the character of the district than any specific Democratic prototype. In the South, that has often meant candidates, like McKeithen, who are more conservative than the typical Democrat.
Democrats were not as successful in Georgia. Conservative state court Judge John Ellington delivered a blow to the party when he declined to challenge Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss (R), whose district went from 18 percent to 28 percent black when Georgia districts were remapped after two black majority districts were thrown out. Also in Georgia, Democrat David Bell mulled a rematch against Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (R) before deciding not to run in a district that is now 34 percent black. In North Carolina, former state senator Glenn Jernigan declined to run for a seat left open by the retirement of Rep. W.G. "Bill" Hefner (D), giving a boost to GOP candidate Robin Hayes, a local businessman, in a newly created district with a 28 percent black population.
"Some of the air went out of the southern region" for the Democrats, said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who predicts little change either way in the South.
Democrats, however, are touting recruiting successes in other districts, such as Alabama's Third, where businessman Joe Turnham an evangelical Christian and state party chairman is challenging Rep. Bob Riley (R), who won his last election with 51 percent of the vote. And in Texas's 14th District, Democrats are high on rancher Loy Sneary to defeat Rep. Ron Paul (R). The district is 10 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. Paul won his last election with 51 percent of the vote.
In the Louisiana race, political analyst Charles E. Cook gives Baker the edge but said McKeithen has a shot. "We really don't know how vulnerable [Baker] is because he really hasn't had a [tough] race since 1986," Cook said. Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University, said McKeithen "is really the ideal candidate, young, attractive, intelligent. . . . But [her victory] is not a sure thing. Richard Baker is not a lock either, but I would have to say he's still the favorite."
McKeithen is the granddaughter of John J. McKeithen, who governed Louisiana as a Democrat from 1965 to 1972. John McKeithen's son and Marjorie's father is Fox McKeithen, Louisiana's popular three-term secretary of state. He was a Democrat until 1989, when he switched to the GOP.
In recent years, many of Marjorie McKeithen's family and friends have become Republicans. "My dad thought the Democrats had let the radical extremes take over control of the party. But I think the Republicans, to some extent, are doing that now," she said.
Fox McKeithen is putting family ties above partisanship, joking that the GOP's commitment to family values requires his allegiance to his daughter. At a fund-raiser at the home of a wealthy Baton Rouge attorney last week, he introduced her to a throng of about 200 people that included a good number of Republicans. The event raised $21,500.
McKeithen's politics are difficult to categorize. She's antiabortion and opposes gun control measures such as the assault weapons ban and five-day waiting period for gun purchases. While she has not endorsed a specific tax reform proposal, she says the "tax system needs to be simpler, flatter and lower for working families."
She is more traditionally Democratic on other issues, opposing school vouchers and supporting greater access to government-backed student loans. She has blasted Baker, who has received three 100 percent voting record ratings from the American Conservative Union since 1991, as too conservative and out of touch with the district for opposing the minimum wage increase and voting to reduce projected Medicare spending.
And she is portraying Baker a Banking subcommittee chairman as an old-guard, country club Republican, noting that more than half of the $365,000 he raised last year came from political action committees, including many from the financial industry he regulates.
Baker dismisses many of McKeithen's criticisms and her lack of political record: "I can point to things I've done. She can only talk about what she wants to do."
After a slow fund-raising start, Baker says he has picked up the pace and will have more than $300,000 on hand by the end of the month. He defended his PAC contributions, saying when the legislative cycle is over, less than 40 percent of his total money raised will be from PACs.
"I'm not taking anything for granted, but I will win this race and win it by a significant margin," Baker said.
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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