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Democrats' Southern Money-Suck Strategy

Someday they'd like to retake the South. For now they're happy to make Republicans pay to keep it.

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Looking at a Southern frontier: Ronnie Musgrove(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Ronnie Musgrove, Mississippi's former Democratic governor, has been telling the same story a lot recently.

In 2008, he ran against Roger Wicker for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Trent Lott. For a brief moment, it seemed that Musgrove might pull off the unthinkable, climbing to an 8-point lead in at least one poll. But in the end, with some major help from Republicans across the country, Wicker took care of business and kept one of the country's reddest of red-state seats in GOP control. After the election, Musgrove says, he got a call from a very-contented Sen. Chuck Schumer.

 

"I know this is not much consolation," the New Yorker said at the time, according to Musgrove, "but had you not run, the Republicans would have had $14 million to have spent across the country." It was money that stayed out of Al Franken's Senate race in Minnesota and Mark Begich's race in Alaska. It was money that stayed in the South.

"Chuck, you're right, that's not much consolation," Musgrove remembers telling Schumer.

But six years later, Musgrove has a different perspective on that election, one he is hoping other Democrats will take to heart: Before the party can turn the South blue, as it hopes to, there's victory to be had by making Republicans go into the red.

 

Musgrove's 2008 consolation prize has now become the semiofficial apologue of the Southern Progress Fund, the progressive organization Musgrove chairs that seeks to build up the forgotten political infrastructure for Democrats below the Mason-Dixon Line. The mission of the group, which made its maiden voyage into last fall's Virginia attorney general's election, relies on the ability of Democratic officials and donors to take a longer and more nuanced view of Southern elections.

"This is not a one-cycle effort," says Musgrove, a phrase that might as well be the organization's tagline.

The group has committed itself to small-ball politics, deciding, for now, to concentrate on state and local races, while beefing up the technological capabilities of state Democratic parties.

"With small investments, we can truly make a play here, even if we don't make them spend money right away," says George Shelton, a former Musgrove aide who serves as the Southern Progress Fund's political director.

 

For Musgrove, the real target date is not even 2016; it's 2020, the next chance for Democrats to redraw the congressional maps. But first things first—he'd like to end the GOP's free ride on the Dixie Express.

Despite some major accomplishments in the region—most notably, the purpling of Virginia—the South remains home to a multitude of uncontested or under-contested Republican-held offices.

Take Mississippi. Despite Democrats' full-bore efforts in 2008, Wicker faced minimal competition for his reelection in 2012, cruising to a 17-point victory and—perhaps as important—ending the race with $2.3 million cash on hand.

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This year, it remains unclear how the national Democratic organizations will approach Mississippi's other Senate seat, held by Thad Cochran, who is facing an expensive and difficult primary against tea-party challenger Chris McDaniel. But there is hope that the national party apparatus will play strong.

"If we are able to develop the infrastructure, then Republicans are going to have to come in and defend their home turf," says David Rosen, a Democratic fundraiser affiliated with the Southern Progress Fund. "And if they are forced to spend money in Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi, that is less money they have to spend in Florida and Ohio."

Over the past 20 years, organizations such as the DNC, DCCC, DLC, and DSCC have traditionally shown up in the South only after a candidate has proven his or her mettle—and none of those organizations has made much of a commitment to building up the benches of political prospects. That's where the Southern Progress Fund hopes to make its mark—nurturing candidates from the most local of levels, in some of the more-forgotten-about corners for Democrats.

It's a welcome call for party activists who have grown tired of watching Republicans retain seats with little effort.

"Nobody ran against [former Sen. Jim] DeMint the last time around, and nobody really ran against Lindsey [Graham] the last time around," says South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison. "If we give Lindsey and [current Republican Sen.] Tim Scott a clean bill, they are going to pour the millions of dollars they raised into other races in South Carolina, or will send money out of state to other races and impact marginal Democrats in the Senate."

Already this cycle, the defense of one traditionally safe Republican Senate seat, Mitch McConnell's in Kentucky, has threatened to add up to the most expensive Senate election in U.S. history. Democrats also look gleefully at the Senate and gubernatorial elections in Georgia, and the governor's race in South Carolina, where Republicans will have to reach deeper into their pockets to protect the home turf. But Musgrove and Co. note that if Democrats want to change the dynamic and ensure that the South will no longer be a net exporter of Republican political dollars, it will have to commit to the region.

"You've got to rebuild those party structures," says Jim Duffy, a Democratic consultant who has advised campaigns in the South. "It is a fairly cheap investment, but the powers-that-be in Washington look for a short-term gain, and long-term thinking is why Republicans overtook the Midwest and gerrymandered all those states."

This article appears in the February 22, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as In the Red.

Don't Miss Today's Top Stories

Chock full of usable information on today's issues."

Michael, Executive Director

Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."

Chuck, Graduate Student

The day's action in one quick read."

Stacy, Director of Communications

Great way to keep up with Washington"

Ray, Professor of Economics

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