To win the South, you need to be white and a Republican

October 25, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The results from the Louisiana primary election are further proof, if any were needed, of the fragile condition of the Democratic Party in the South.

Voters there seem to be following a pattern already established by those in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama by defecting to conservative Republicanism and leaving the Democrats increasingly dependent on black voters who don't make up enough of the electorate to win anything.

And the trend is being accelerated by the growing perception of the Democrats as ''the black party'' at a time when racial polarization in politics is as pronounced as it was in the reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict.

The Republicans have never had a full-fledged party apparatus in Louisiana. Instead, they have prospered on the strength of Democratic defections. That is what happened eight years ago when they elected Buddy Roemer governor after he switched parties.

Now history appears ready to repeat. The leader in the primary was Mike Foster, a state senator who declared himself a Republican even as he entered the contest, then gradually overtook all the ostensibly leading candidates to capture 26 percent of the vote. He now will compete in a runoff against Rep. Cleo Fields, a black Democrat who scored a mild surprise good enough for second place with 19 percent of the vote.

Mr. Fields, 32, has a reputation as an excellent campaigner who had demonstrated he could win some white votes in his two congressional campaigns. But he will be given little or no chance to overtake Mr. Foster in the November 18 runoff. Louisiana is the place where 56 percent of white voters supported David Duke, the one-time Ku Klux Klan leader, for governor four years ago.

Although blacks make up close to 30 percent of the voting-age population, Mr. Fields will find it difficult and probably impossible to capture the one-third of the white vote he would need to win statewide. Other Democrats running for the presidency, a governorship or a seat in the Senate have already had that experience in states with large black populations. Although that solid black support can require a Democrat to win only 30 percent to 35 percent of the white vote, that share has been increasingly difficult to reach.

By contrast, white Democrats have found it easier in states in which they needed 40 percent to 42 percent of the white vote because the black population was smaller. The rule seems to be that the larger the black share of the electorate, the more white Democrats defect.

Democrats in Louisiana had been growing concerned recently about the possibility of a two-Republican runoff with Messrs. Foster and Roemer, the only candidates left standing. As a result, many party leaders tried to rally support for the state treasurer, Mary Landrieu, their leading candidate in a field of six serious players.

Marc Morial, the black mayor of New Orleans, for example, issued a dual endorsement of Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Fields, thus trying to maintain his loyalty to the black candidate while sending the message that a vote for Ms. Landrieu was needed. But she ran third, a point behind Mr. Fields, and only slightly ahead of former Governor Roemer.

Another prominent woman Democrat, Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann, finished a distant sixth with 5 percent of the vote, leaving behind some muttering among Democrats who had hoped she would withdraw and leave whatever women's vote was available to Ms. Landrieu.

Edwards' narrow escape

XTC But even if Ms. Landrieu had made the runoff, she would have been an underdog against the conservative Mr. Foster. The outgoing Democrat, the colorful and controversial Edwin W. Edwards, survived four years ago only after every element of the establishment in the state -- business, labor, the churches, local officials, civic organizations, the newspapers -- banded together against the threat of David Duke. And even at that, Governor Edwards won only on the strength of a heavy and solid black turnout behind him.

All this is more bad news for President Clinton as he looks ahead to the 1996 campaign. The results across the South in the last year, coupled with opinion polls, make it clear that there is no market with white voters for a Democrat perceived as even moderately liberal, which is the way the president is seen.

Mr. Clinton carried Louisiana in 1992, along with Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and his native Arkansas. Next year he will be lucky even to hold Arkansas. The road to political success in the South is to be white and, most important, Republican.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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