Southern Democrats turn into a vanishing breed

June 25, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

SPRINGFIELD, Ga. -- When Sen. Sam Nunn stepped to the microphone at a Chamber of Commerce dinner here recently, no one in the audience knew for sure if he was about to make a campaign speech or a farewell address.

The last of a legendary breed of powerful Southern Democrat, the Georgia senator is thinking about retiring when his term ends next year. Polls show that he is popular enough to be re-elected, but he may not want to run.

Across the South, old bulls like Mr. Nunn have been stranded high and dry by rising Republicanism. He's the only white Democrat left in his state's 13-member congressional delegation. recently as 1992, there was but a single Republican: Rep. Newt Gingrich.

In Washington, Mr. Nunn is surrounded by Republicans. He has had to surrender his cherished chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee, and his prospects for regaining it before 1999 appear dim.

Analysts say the GOP's Southern surge shows no signs of cresting, which means that Republicans could dominate Congress for the next 40 years, as Democrats did for the previous 40.

"It's almost at the point now where you've got internal combustion, and events will move fairly rapidly from here," says Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist.

The Republican wave in the South is likely to keep building, as aging Democratic incumbents retire and new districts are carved out of fast-growing, heavily Republican suburbs. As a result, Mr. Black says, the South could generate a "surplus" of Republican senators and representatives big enough to keep the party in control of Congress "and make it a truly national party for the first time in its existence."

These trends have prompted some dark thoughts among some Democrats about the impending demise in the South of their party.

"I do absolutely think it's a vanishing breed," says Jim Quackenbush, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign in the South.

Most politicians, however, expect the Democrats to survive -- if for no other reason than because of the region's large number of African-Americans, the party's most loyal backers. But the Republican surge is certainly not over yet.

A Republican breakthrough

Last fall, for the first time in history, Republicans gained more than half the House and Senate seats in the South. The big GOP congressional vote, "without a presidential landslide to drive it, indicates that there's been a Republican breakthrough in the South," says Haley Barbour, the Mississippian who chairs the Republican National Committee. "After Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, it was no longer stigmatized to be a Republican in the South. By 1994, it was an advantage."

So far, none of the Democratic senators from the South whose terms expire next year have chosen to seek re-election.

Mr. Nunn says he would run if he had to decide now. But he plans to reach "an orderly decision" over the summer, he says, adding, "I don't want to rush it."

Three others -- Sens. Howell Heflin of Alabama, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and David Pryor of Arkansas -- opted to retire instead, which improves Republican chances of picking up their seats.

Other conservative Democrats, such as Alabama's Sen. Richard Shelby and Georgia's Rep. Nathan Deal, have switched to the GOP since November, and more are expected to follow, including Reps. Greg Laughlin of Texas, Mike Parker of Mississippi and possibly Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana.

"Democratic officeholders in the South are being faced now with either extinction or, out of expediency, changing parties," says Tom Perdue, a former top aide to two Democratic governors of Georgia who has gone on to manage winning Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia and Tennessee over the past two years.

"People down here are absolutely fed up with a Democratic Party promoting values that you don't want your children to grow up and embrace," says Mr. Perdue, a Southern strategist for Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign, citing homosexual rights, the current welfare system and affirmative action as examples.

White males shift right

Behind the power shift in the South lurks the matter of race, never far from the surface where the region's politics are concerned. Over the past 30 years, the crucial change in the South has been the flight of white conservatives to the Republican Party.

"It's hard to overstate the devastation to the Democratic Party among white males," says Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta. His surveys last year in South Carolina, he says, found that only 8 percent of white men identified themselves as Democrats.

Rep. Jack Kingston, who in 1992 became the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent Georgia's coastal congressional district, sees the change when he campaigns door-to-door.

"In 1984, people would tell me, 'My granddaddy was a Methodist and my daddy was a Methodist. My granddaddy was a Democrat and my daddy was a Democrat. And that's it.' No further discussion," he says.

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