Wednesday, June 02, 2004

On race in southern politics: five Democratic senators from the south are retiring this year -- John B. Breaux in Louisiana, John Edwards in North Carolina, Ernest F. Hollings in South Carolina, Zell Miller in Georgia and Bob Graham in Florida.

All of these seats will most likely go to Republicans.

The Times profiles the Democratic candidates for these seats. On thing unites them: they all seem quite eager to de-emphasize their party affiliation:

"I don't think my ideas are Republican ideas and I don't think they're Democratic ideas," Erskine Bowles, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in North Carolina, recently told 12 voters at a restaurant. "I just think they're good ideas."

A few hours earlier, Inez Tenenbaum, the education commissioner of South Carolina and the Democrats' Senate hopeful there, stood on the southern steps of the State House in Columbia - petite and steely - and likewise promised to be "an independent voice" beholden to no national party.

The truth is, however, that even repeated efforts to create distance from their party will not make these candidates competitive.

I've lived in the south for seven years. One of the things that surprised me when I moved to Atlanta is how rarely race tends to become major issue in political elections. Don't get me wrong, race is always an issue; but it is not discussed, barely mentioned, rarely argued about. Both candidates usually do their best to avoid a statewide or district-wide debate on the topic.

Over 90% of the black vote routinely goes to Democrats in the south. Clearly, Democrats have little to gain by bringing up race; but what about Republicans? Given that a moderate approach on the topic has clearly failed to win them black votes, it stands to reason that a rational approach would be to make anti-affirmative-action one of the central planks in the platform in the hope of winning white votes. Yet this does not happen.

I think part of the reason for this is the Republican dominance in the south. Republicans have no incentive to introduce race because they can easily win without it. Moreover, if southern Republicans were to bring up race it would adversely affect Republicans running in other parts of the country.

The Times article I linked above documents signs of hope in Democratic candidates (it is entitled Democrats Starting to See Chance of Keeping Senate Seats in South). My prediction is that if the south starts to get more competitive, race will begin to play a bigger role.


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