Guarded Prospects for Southern Democrats, Northeast Republicans

by Stuart Rothenberg May 9, 2012 · 10:03 AM EDT

It looks as if there will be no rest for the weary, at least for Democratic House candidates in the South. Heading into November’s elections, except for a handful of races, Democratic opportunities in the region continue to be limited to districts that are heavily populated by minorities.

The question is whether another group that has struggled of late, Republicans in the Northeast, has some reason for hope this cycle, even with President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

Just two years ago, the 11 states of the old Confederacy sent 35 white Democrats to the U.S. House, and Democratic strategists were bragging that reports of the party’s demise in the South were premature.

But after the disastrous 2010 elections, the number of white Democrats has already shrunk by more than half, to just 16, and it could shrink even further, possibly to as few as 10 or 11 in a worst-case November scenario.

In fact, all five states of the Deep South — South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana ­— as well as Arkansas could be without a single white Democratic Congressman if Georgia Rep. John Barrow loses his bid for re-election and the party can’t hold retiring Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross’ open seat, which looks likely.

The 10 white Southern Democratic incumbents who seem certain to be back next year include Reps. Kathy Castor, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch of Florida; David Price of North Carolina; Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen of Tennessee; Gene Green and Lloyd Doggett of Texas; and Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran of Virginia.

Both Green’s and Doggett’s districts are actually majority Hispanic, while Cohen’s is overwhelmingly black. Castor’s district is majority-minority. The districts of Wasserman Schultz and Deutch have substantial numbers of Jewish voters, and aside from the considerable Hispanic populations, have more in common with districts in the Northeast than in the South.

The districts of Doggett and Price have substantial university populations and influence, making them much more liberal than the typical Southern district. And while Virginia left the Union, the districts of both Moran and Connolly are in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, and not particularly “Southern.”

Democratic strategists are hoping to offset expected losses in the region with gains in Florida, where they have opportunities in two new seats and against allegedly vulnerable GOP incumbents such as Reps. David Rivera, Steve Southerland and Daniel Webster. But aside from the Sunshine State and new Hispanic districts in Texas, additional Democratic opportunities in the region are all but nonexistent.

Republican House prospects in the Northeast are limited as well, but the party has some interesting opportunities in unusual places.

Before the 2010 elections, Republicans held seven House seats in the six states of New England plus New York and New Jersey. Now, the GOP holds 16 seats — eight in New York, six in New Jersey and two in New Hampshire.

Democrats hope to reduce the GOP totals in the Empire State dramatically, and Republican Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle, Michael Grimm and Chris Gibson find themselves as top Democratic targets.

In addition, Democrats expect to take back at least one of New Hampshire’s seats (from Rep. Charles Bass). New York GOP Rep. Bob Turner’s district is being eliminated because the state lost two seats as a result of reapportionment.

But Republicans are hoping to add at least a couple of new seats in the region, including an uphill opportunity in Connecticut’s open 5th district.

Three Democratic Northeast seats — one in New York (currently held by Rep. Bill Owens), one in Massachusetts (held by Rep. John Tierney) and the third in Rhode Island (held by freshman Rep. David Cicilline) — look like very reasonable takeover opportunities, assuming presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney doesn’t get buried in the fall.

In Massachusetts, former state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, who was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2010, acknowledges that he has differences with his party, particularly on cultural issues.

Openly gay and pro-abortion-rights, Tisei stresses his fiscal conservatism and argues that the combination of his moderate views and Tierney’s ethics issues give him an opportunity in this competitive district, which was last won by a Republican Congressional nominee in 1994.

Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges that she was involved with her brother’s illegal offshore gambling operations. The Democrat was re-elected that year, though his victory margin was down.

Another GOP opportunity in New England, against Cicilline, stems from the incumbent’s perceived vulnerability.

A former mayor of Providence, Cicilline has been damaged by the city’s tenuous financial condition but even more by the charge that he painted a rosy picture of the city’s finances when it really was in trouble. He has received an abundance of negative media coverage, and his poll ratings have suffered consequently.

Any Republican revival in the Northeast is likely to be limited, just as the brief Democratic revival in the South in the 2006 and 2008 elections was. That said, both parties will take seats where they can, even if those gains are short-lived.