Alabama, Mississippi Democrats Hope To Stem Rising GOP Tide
By Geoff Earle, CQ Staff Writer
Much of the past decade has not been kind to Democrats in the Deep South.
In Alabama, the party began the 1990s with two Democratic senators and a 5-to-2 advantage in the congressional delegation. Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-to-2 in the House and the GOP controls both Senate seats. In Mississippi, Democrats once held a 4-to-1 advantage in the House, but now are on the minority end of a 3-to-2 ratio.
For disheartened Southern Democrats, these GOP gains must seem like an implacable historical tide. So it is with a degree of caution that Democrats are talking about possible pickups in the two states in 1998.
Strong candidates in well-chosen races give Democrats hope, provided that the party can successfully navigate the delicate but crucial issues of religion and race.
Democrats believe their best chances are in Alabama. In the 4th District, Republican Rep. Robert B. Aderholt is seeking a second term after capturing the seat in 1996 with just 50 percent of the vote. Aderholt beat Democratic attorney Bob Wilson by a mere 3,500 votes, and he is back for a rematch.
But before Wilson challenges the incumbent, he must defeat a familiar and beloved name in the June 2 primary: Don Bevill.
Bevill's father, Tom, represented the district for 30 years (1967-1997) and used his longtime chairmanship of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee to ensure federal aid for the district. His name adorns many of the water projects in the region.
Bevill has been able to capitalize on his father's contacts, raising $140,000 this year; he has $81,000 cash on hand. Wilson has relied primarily on personal wealth, lending his campaign $141,000 this year. He had $148,000 cash on hand at the end of March.
So far, the primary contest has been relatively quiet with neither Wilson nor Bevill running ads on television and relying instead on hand-shake campaigning. Neither candidate has shown any inclination to use negative tactics. Wilson regards Bevill's father as his political mentor, and the senior Bevill campaigned for Wilson in 1996.
The 4th is conservative territory. A local judge named Roy Moore gained national attention for posting a copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Aderholt was a key sponsor of a House-passed resolution (HCONRES31) to permit such religious displays and has attended campaign rallies with Moore.
The Democrat who wins the right to challenge Aderholt -- he has no primary opponent -- is likely to try to shift the political debate from such charged social issues to Aderholt's record.
Democrats will contend that the Republican has failed to live up to Bevill's legacy as a champion for the district.
"They'll try to say, 'We don't have the clout in Washington that we used to have,' " said Brad Moody, a political science professor at Auburn University in Montgomery.
Conservative social values also will be an issue in the 3rd District, where first-term GOP Rep. Bob Riley faces a stiff challenge in November from Democratic state party Chairman Joe Turnham.
Riley has been in step with his Bible Belt district. A devout Christian, he refused to campaign on Sundays during the 1996 campaign and won strong support from religious conservatives. Riley is a staunch opponent of abortion rights and supports voluntary prayer in schools.
But Turnham has refused to concede conservative social issues to the Republican.
"Rhetorically and morally, I think I can go step for step with Bob on most of these issues," Turnham said.
The Democrat is a member of the Promise Keepers, a men's organization dedicated to strengthening family values, and has also done mission work. Turnham even brought in a consultant to run workshops on moral and family values for Alabama Democratic candidates, a program 4th District Republican Chairman Henry King derided as created to help Democratic candidates "become more religious."
As the incumbent, Riley has an edge, even though he won the 1996 election by only 4 percentage points. The district has narrowly voted Republican in the last two presidential elections.
Nevertheless, Turnham is considered a strong candidate. His father, Pete Turnham, was dean of the state House delegation and resigned his seat this year to head his son's campaign.
Democrats also could have a shot at winning the governor's mansion, an office they have not won since George C. Wallace relinquished it in 1986.
They have a strong, well-financed candidate in Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, who has built a treasury of more than $3 million and recently won the endorsement of a major black political group in the state, the New South Coalition.
Republicans, meanwhile, are engaged in an unusually fractious primary.
Incumbent GOP Gov. Fob James Jr. has been criticized for his unpredictable style. He also has earned the enmity of the business community, which believes he has not adequately courted new businesses, and criticism for some of his political appointments.
But James has delighted social conservatives with his defense of school prayer. He recently submitted legal arguments to the Supreme Court in a school prayer case in which he urged government officials to defy court orders they believe to be unconstitutional.
Such positions have drawn criticism from James' top GOP challenger: wealthy businessman Winton Blount. Blount has been gaining in the polls and is expected to force James into a runoff. A dark horse candidate is former Republican Gov. Guy Hunt, who had to resign in 1993. Hunt entered the race after receiving a pardon from a state parole board after he agreed to a $212,000 fine for ethics violations.
Most of Alabama's other incumbents appear secure, including GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby, who drew only token Democratic opposition. Shelby's fundraising success scared away many challengers. The two-term Democrat-turned-Republican had nearly $5.5 million cash on hand at the end of March.
In neighboring Mississippi, House incumbents are on solid ground and should easily overcome any challenge.
The one exception is in the 4th District, where another Democrat-turned-Republican, Rep. Mike Parker, has decided not to seek a sixth term.
Mississippi's Democratic Party can best be described as moribund, but there are some reasons for optimism in the Jackson-based district. Democrats held the seat before Parker switched parties in 1995, and President Clinton lost to GOP candidate Bob Dole by just 2 percentage points in 1996. Democrats have a clear front-runner in elected State Transportation Commissioner Ronnie Shows, while the GOP has a crowded primary.
Several top Republicans have emerged from a field of nine, and a runoff is likely.
Attorney Delbert Hoseman is the top fundraiser among GOP candidates with $155,000 cash on hand. But Hoseman has drawn criticism from another contender, state Rep. Ken Stribling, for supporting former Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus in his 1987 election.
Two aides to prominent Mississippi politicians also are competing for the nomination. Heath Hall, an aide to GOP Gov. Kirk Fordice, has received his boss' endorsement. Hall also will be helped by his father, Alton, a veterinarian and key political player in the district's southern region.
"His dad is strong as kidney stones," said Mississippi political columnist Sid Salter.
Art Rhodes served as Parker's chief of staff, a post that enabled him to make key contacts across the state. Other candidates include banker Phillip Davis and county District Attorney Dunn Lampton.
Democrat Shows is expected to beat Joyce Arceneaux, a Natchez city councilwoman, in a district where blacks account for 41 percent of the population.
With districtwide name recognition as a moderate, Shows could be a formidable candidate in November. Whether he can succeed will depend on whether Shows, who is white, can energize the party's base of black voters to the polls.
"I don't know what Shows could do to turn them on," said political columnist Bill Minor. Mississippi's notoriously underfinanced state Democratic Party will not do him much good.
"The party can do virtually nothing to help him," Salter said, "and the Republicans will pull out all the stops."
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