Democrats Enjoy a Southern Surge
By Edward Walsh
Apparently buoyed by a large turnout of black voters while not being hurt by GOP attempts to focus on President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the Democrats rode to victory in key Senate and gubernatorial races in four southern states that have been growing increasingly Republican.
But at the same time, the Republicans captured two of the biggest prizes in the South -- the governor's offices in Florida and Texas -- and when all the votes are counted will continue to hold a majority of the region's Senate seats and governor's offices. The big losers in yesterday's voting, said Merle Black, a leading authority on southern politics, were Christian conservatives and the Republican politicians who tied themselves too closely to their agenda.
Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the outcome of the gubernatorial races in South Carolina and Alabama demonstrated how Christian conservatives' opposition to gambling served as a drag on GOP candidates. South Carolina Gov. David M. Beasley (R) was defeated by Democrat Jim Hodges, while in Alabama incumbent Republican Gov. Fob James was ousted from office by Democratic Lt. Gov. Donald Siegelman.
In both states, the key issues were proposals pushed by the Democratic candidates and opposed by their Republican opponents to create state lotteries and use the revenue generated by legalized gambling to fund college scholarship programs. The idea was pioneered by the immensely popular Democratic governor of neighboring Georgia, Zell Miller, who is retiring.
"Democrats win governorships when they present themselves as innovators in public policy," Black said. "The innovation is the lottery for scholarships. Democrats can do this because they don't have a significant portion of the constituency opposed to the lottery. This is an issue where Republicans can't innovate."
Cautioning Democrats not to read too much into yesterday's southern surge, Black said that the GOP remained strong in the South. The GOP continued yesterday to score election victories with candidates who retained firm ties to traditional Republican supporters in the business community while not alienating Christian conservatives, Black said. He cited the victories yesterday of "the Bush boys," Jeb and George W., the sons of former president George Bush.
Jeb Bush was elected governor of Florida while his brother rode to an overwhelming reelection victory as governor of Texas.
"There is a lesson in this," Black said. "The Republican governors who have governed as centrists and not alienated the Christian right, those Republicans are doing fine. It's the real right-wingers who are losing because they are not pursuing an agenda that enjoys majority support."
In South Carolina, Beasley once enjoyed strong support from Christian conservatives, but he managed to alienate his own base with a proposal to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the state Capitol. Already put on the defensive on the lottery issue by Hodges, Beasley supported the elimination of video poker games in the state, provoking a huge infusion of cash for Hodges from the state's $2.4 billion video poker industry.
Miller's retirement gave Republicans their best chance in memory to capture the Georgia governor's office, but last night another Democrat, Roy Barnes, had given his party four more years of control in the state.
It was the same in the closely contested Senate races in the Carolinas, where incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) lost to Democratic trial lawyer John Edwards and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) turned back a challenge by Republican Rep. Bob Inglis.
But Republicans can take solace with the outcome of one of the closest Senate races in the country -- the Kentucky contest between two House members to succeed retiring Democrat Wendell H. Ford. Republican Jim Bunning narrowly defeated Democrat Scotty Baesler in that race.
Exit polls across the South suggested that while the region remains a bastion of anti-Clinton sentiment, Republican attempts to capitalize on the Lewinsky scandal fell short of hopes. Slight majorities of southern voters said they opposed Clinton's impeachment and that their votes in congressional races were not either to show support for or opposition to the president. Nationally, 62 percent of voters said they opposed impeachment compared with 53 percent in the South.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company