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.

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, left, applauds as former Gov. William Winter speaks during ceremonies prior to breaking ground in downtown Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, for the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum--two separate entities under one roof. 
National Journal
Daniel Libit
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Daniel Libit
Feb. 24, 2014, midnight

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.

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.”

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