Will a Democratic Presidential Contender Finally Carry the South?

In Charles Schulz's beloved 'Peanuts' comic, the character of Lucy repeatedly rips the football away just as Charlie Brown is about to place a kick.

The South might be "Lucy and the football" when it comes to presidential politics.

Every four years Democrats think that their presidential nominee can carry one or more Southern states and every four years Lucy pulls the ball away at the last minute and the Democratic ticket is shut-out in the South. A Democrat can be elected president without carrying a single Southern state (John Kerry would have done this in 2004 had he carried Ohio and Al Gore would have done this in 2000 had he carried Missouri or Colorado).

However, the task would be much easier if the ticket could dent the South.

So, what Southern states might the the Democratic ticket carry in 2008? Let’s look at Florida, Virginia and Arkansas, all states that could be in play under the right circumstances.

Florida is obvious. Many people feel that Al Gore actually did carry Florida in 2000 but the Supreme Court stopped the re-count before this could be established. Florida has a growing non-Cuban Hispanic population which should be sympathetic to Democrats and is one of the few Southern states that still has a Democratic United States senator (Bill Nelson). Look for both parties to mount aggressive campaigns in Florida next year.

Virginia is intriguing. It has now elected back-to-back Democratic governors and in 2006 elected Democratic U.S. Sen. Jim Webb. The Washington, D.C., suburbs in Northern Virginia is the fastest growing part of the state and was critical to Webb’s win. If Sen. John Warner retires and Democrats field a strong Senate nominee (perhaps former Gov. Mark Warner) this could provide the little extra boost needed to put Virginia in the Democratic column for president. This state definitely bears watching.

Arkansas is the other Southern state that could be in the Democratic column. It now has a Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, and two Democratic U.S. senators (Blanche Lambert Lincoln and Mark Pryor). Hillary Clinton certainly would put Arkansas in play if she were the nominee but other Democrats could also make a run at its electoral votes. If former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee winds up on the GOP ticket for vice president, then Arkansas is probably not in play.

The unknown factor would be the effect of Barack Obama if he were the nominee. All three Southern states under discussion have significant black populations which certainly would be rallied to his cause. However, these three states are potentials for the Democratic ticket even if headed by a white.

Other Southern states that should be in play in future elections if not 2008 include North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. North Carolina has a Democratic governor (Mike Easley) and the majority of its Congressional delegation is Democratic. It has a significant high tech population transplanted from more Democratic states but is has fallen short in recent presidential years.

Texas, which has the second largest number of electoral votes, will be back in the Democratic column some day. The only question is when. Its rapidly growing Hispanic population ultimately will help tip the state. Also, Democrats made gains in state legislative races in 2006 and carried all countywide races in Dallas County, the second most populous county in the state, that year. A similar showing is possible in Harris County (Houston) and Bexar County (San Antonio) in 2008. Republican Gov. Rick Perry remains very unpopular.

Tennessee just seemed to slip away from Democrats in recent years. However, Harold Ford, Jr., made a very strong showing for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen remains very popular. There’s hope for Tennessee yet.

The Republican Party has taken the South for granted in recent elections. I’m not saying that there will be a revolution any time soon, but parts of the region definitely are in play and more states may be so in future years. Also, there continue to be a number of Democratic Congressmen from the South (both black and white) who are strong in their particular districts, so an infrastructure is in place.

Lucy may actually let Charlie Brown kick the ball a little bit down the field in 2008. Keep your eyes on Florida, Virginia and Arkansas.

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Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.