Magazine article Insight on the News

GOP Has Electoral Momentum

Magazine article Insight on the News

GOP Has Electoral Momentum

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennifer G. Hickey, INSIGHT

If there were any doubt Republicans and Democrats view politics on different screens, one needed only key into the spin they put on the results of November's state and local elections. Republicans concentrated their message on historic victories in gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Mississippi, while Democrats ignored the elephant in the room to attribute GOP gains to anti-incumbent sentiment.

Republican Party officials said the Nov. 4 returns showcased the expanding numbers of Republican voters since 2000 and were a positive sign for the general election of 2004. On the other hand, Democratic Party officials said the ousting of incumbents was good news for the chances of their party against President George W. Bush, the biggest incumbent on the block.

"It's pretty hard to draw hard conclusions from a set of state elections, but in general the results do reflect a trend in the South toward the Republican Party. Whether this trend will continue to grow is unclear, but there is no question Republicans have continued to make gains," says Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Atlanta's Emory University. In fact, Republican strength in the South led to Rep. Ernie Fletcher becoming the first GOP governor elected in Kentucky in 32 years and former Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Haley Barbour becoming only the second Republican governor of Mississippi in 130 years.

But Abramowitz accurately noted that animosity toward scandal-plagued Gov. Paul Patton had played a role in Fletcher's victory in the Bluegrass State. It was not inconsequential, said RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, that many state and national Democrats wrote off Kentucky and Mississippi well before Election Day. Some then wrote off fellow Democrats. Rickey Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, snarled that elected officials who endorsed Barbour "cannot seriously expect to continue to be considered Democrats after taking such a step."

Hesitant to read too much into the returns, Gillespie said 2004 will be close and every voter will be needed. He credited Bush's late campaign trips to Kentucky and Mississippi with energizing Republican voters there, also a key factor in the GOP successes of 2002. In Kentucky's Laurel County, voter turnout increased by 252 percent over 1999, while there was a 161 percent turnout increase over 1999 in McCracken County.

Building on the success of their mobilization efforts in 2002, in the final 72 hours of the campaign Republican volunteers made more than 90,000 phone calls in Kentucky, and in Mississippi an estimated 2,500 volunteers knocked on some 200,000 doors in the final hours. Also, the RNC benefited by a renewed focus on registering new voters. In Kentucky, 20,000 new Republicans were registered during a campaign that lasted four months, while 10,000 new voters were brought into the GOP ranks in Mississippi.

With the polls predicting a close race between Barbour and Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, the Mississippi race became more negative and, therefore, more racially divisive. Democrats continued to criticize Barbour for wearing lapel pins with both the U.S. flag and the state flag, which contains the Confederate battle flag in one corner. Ironically, the same pin is worn by members of the Mississippi National Guard.

Not-so-subtle racial overtones were evident at a Nov. 1 football game between Jackson State, a historically black college, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Gillespie noted. A flier handed out at the game carried the headline, "Haley Barbour for Governor" with Barbour's picture and a burning cross in the background, hardly a resounding endorsement.

The use of agents provocateurs and divisive tactics to gain last-minute advantage and spur turnout was not confined to Mississippi. On Election Day, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe issued a statement declaring that as many as 55,000 voters in Houston were "at risk of being disenfranchised" due to a lack of ballots printed in Vietnamese. …

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