Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats See 'Solid South' Slipping Away Retirements May Speed Realignment

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats See 'Solid South' Slipping Away Retirements May Speed Realignment

Article excerpt

DEMOCRATS, stunned by last November's electoral losses, are now facing a new bit of bad political news: Their chance of winning back the Senate in 1996 is dwindling from slim to slimmer.

The reason is retirements. Two weeks ago, Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas announced that he would not run in '96, bringing the number of retiring Senate Democrats to five. Gleeful Republican officials claim they can pick up at least three of these seats, bolstering their current 54 to 46 Senate majority.

In particular, the GOP is aiming to win a "Deep South Senate Trifecta" in Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. It's far from a forgone conclusion that Republicans can pull this triple win off, but if they can, it would be further evidence of historic party realignment in the Sun Belt. Arkansas and Louisiana haven't elected Republican senators since Reconstruction.

"I don't think Democrats are without hope in the South, but Senate retirements have certainly made the hill a little steeper," says Democratic pollster Alan Secrest in Washington.

Besides Senator Pryor, the Southern Democrats who have so far announced that they are leaving the Senate are J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Howell Heflin of Alabama.

Democrats Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and Sen. Jim Exon of Nebraska are also retiring, as is a lone Senate Republican -- Hank Brown of Colorado.

Not that long ago, the idea that a departing Democratic senator from the South wouldn't be automatically replaced by another Democrat would have seemed a departure from natural law. Southern Democrats such as John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard Russell of Georgia bestrode the Senate like colossi in suits, easily winning election after election in a region solid for their party.

Even after the South began a trend of voting GOP for president, Democrats continued to count on Southern voters to maintain a Senate majority. As recently as 1986 the South voted in five Democratic freshmen senators, ending the brief Reagan interregnum of GOP Senate control.

But now the era of the legendary Dixiecrats appears to have ended. Democrats just can't seem to hold onto their Southern Senate seats. Over the last eight election cycles only one Southern Democrat -- John Breaux of Louisiana -- has managed to directly succeed another. (Senator Breaux won the seat of longtime Senate baron Russell Long, in 1986.)

In 1996, the key to a "Deep South Trifecta," for Republicans, will be finding strong candidates. That's something they haven't always managed in the past. President Clinton's popularity ratings will also have to stay relatively low in his native region.

"I think the Republicans have a very good shot at these seats," notes Hastings Wyman Jr., editor of the newsletter Southern Political Report.

The '96 vote is still a long way away, of course. …

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