As sure as Sherman’s march through the Confederacy, which began 150 years ago this November, the future control of the United States Senate rests in the heart of Dixie and a handful of 2014 contests.
Starting at the mouth of the Mississippi River, that includes Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky, before a clockwise turn through North Carolina and Georgia.
If Republicans carry those five states – three currently occupied by imperiled Democrats – it all but guarantees a GOP a net gain of six seats nationwide and a Senate majority in 2015 (that’s presuming West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana as near-certain Republican pickups).
So how do the Democrats fend off this political equivalent of Sherman's path of destruction? Pundits will point to survival tactics already underway.
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, for example, is suddenly a champion of the Keystone pipeline – an idea dead on arrival in Harry Reid’s Senate.
In Georgia, Democratic hopeful Michelle Nunn would have voters believe she isn’t sold on Reid as the next Senate Majority Leader.
Here’s a word of advice for the Democrats campaigning in the South this fall. Forget these too-cute tactics – they reek of desperation. Instead, try connecting with voters on the one topic that unites all good old boys (and gals) down the election’s homestretch. And that would be college football, which kicks off in earnest this weekend across the country.
1. Just Say No . . . to Saturday Voting. In every election, some pointy-headed academic will suggest that shifting Election Day from Tuesday to Saturday will improve voter turnout. Perhaps. But what that overlooks is the second version of southern religion: Saturdays, with their full slate of Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conference football, are the first of the weekend’s two holy days. Move Election Day from Nov. 4 and Nov. 8, in 2014, and the democratic process runs smack-dab into Texas A&M traveling to Auburn and Alabama visiting LSU. Try telling Tigers’ fans that they’d rather stand in line to vote than tailgate at “Death Valley.”
2. Pick an Avatar Other than Bubba. In Kentucky, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes is counting on a superstar to rally voters: former President Bill Clinton, who’ll be criss-crossing the South to remind non-fans of the Obama White House and Pelosi House of a gilded age when there were moderate Democrats in Washington. That’s fine and dandy, but this is the South, where athletes are deified more so than former presidents.
Nunn, for example, should turn to Herschel Walker, still larger than life for leading the George Bulldogs to a national title three decades ago.
In North Carolina, where college basketball rules all, Michael Jordan could be the tonic for what ails incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The only problem with that: Jordan’s notoriously apolitical (though he did co-host an Obama fundraiser in 2012). Asked to campaign for Democrat Harvey Gant in North Carolina’s 1990 Senate Race, His Airness reportedly told a friend: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
3. Throw Michelle Under the Bus. Be it ObamaCare, runaway entitlement spending or a cratering foreign policy, imperiled Southern Democrats have to choose where and how to break with an unpopular president. Here’s an easier departure point: Michelle Obama’s war on school cafeterias.
On southern football weekends, pre-game tailgating means pulled pig, sweet potato cornbread and most anything that can be infused with bourbon.
So why not show up wherever meat hits the grill and tell folks that whole grains and low-fat milk aren’t your idea of educational reform; if elected, you’ll put an end to the first lady as America’s Lunch Lady.
Better yet, if repeal is the ticket to reelection . . .
4. Repeal the College Football Playoff. For 16 football seasons, America’s universities labored under the Bowl Championship Series, an arbitrary, computer-driven selection process that was universally despised – with the notable exception of the Deep South, where 15 SEC and ACC squads found their way into the title game.
But now the BCS is gone. In its place: a four-team playoff system that, not unlike ObamaCare, is touted by its designers as a needed marketplace correction. However, southern football consumers may disagree. What better time for an SEC or ACC Democrat to promise, if elected, to author SB 1 and the repeal of the new postseason format (“if you liked your BCS, you can keep your BCS”).
Perhaps college football isn’t the Democrats’ escape from perdition in the South in 2014 – a stumbling progressive president in a conservative landscape might too much to overcome. Still, facing third-and-long on a hostile playing terrain, maybe it’s time to call an audible.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.