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Politics

House Race Hotline Spotlight: Southern Blues

July 6, 2012

Conservative Democratic House members and candidates have had a rough time over the last few years, but a few have seen hopeful signs lately. Southern Blue Dog Democrats, though, seem to be having especially difficult 2012 campaigns compared to counterparts elsewhere, and Rep. Larry Kissell's, D-N.C., recurring struggles with black support illustrate why being a Southern Democrat is so hard.

-- In redistricting, Republicans shifted Kissell's 8th District seat from a swing district President Obama won with 52 percent to one 10 points more GOP-friendly. Kissell, who always had an independent streak, has also seemed to shift a bit, voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt and saying he wants to repeal the health care reform law.

-- Kissell's move toward the middle put him in trouble with his base, though, and the district's Black Leadership Caucus declined to endorse him. Kissell needs black and other minority voters even more in his new district than before: In March, his pollsters specifically said that minority voters were the key to Kissell's "expansion potential" from a dangerous-looking 46 percent starting point.

-- Other members like Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Mark Critz, D-Pa., and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, have made similar moves recently, but their lily-white CDs are more homogeneous, as opposed to the South's "split personality" seats divided between black liberals and very conservative whites. Dems often have difficulty straddling that divide: Ex-Rep. Allen Boyd's strength was sapped by a primary from the left in Florida in 2010, and surviving Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., was threatened too. Kissell himself had to weather black and liberal unrest in 2009 and 2010.

Obama's North Carolina turnout machine will help all down-ballot Democrats, and disillusionment with Kissell could evaporate in a pragmatic fall environment. But this persistent issue will continue to haunt Southern Democrats going forward.

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