By Richard E. Cohen and National Journal
August 10, 1996
This is the year the GOP hopes to finish its transformation of a Solid Democratic South to an equally Solid Republican South.
This timeworn city has staked a claim in Americana by locating the center of its downtown smack on the line that separates the states of Texas and Arkansas. So besides having to face widely varying tax rates and liquor rules on opposite sides of the street, Texarkana's 50,000-odd residents are exposed to far more congressional politicking than most other places in America.
For this year's House and Senate races, the city is on what may be a crucial national political fault line. ``There are a lot of independent voters here,'' said Robert E. (Swede) Lee, the president of the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce who in 1992 was briefly a Republican candidate to represent the Texas side of town in the House. ``Neither party can take this area for granted.''
At stake is the Republicans' increasingly successful attempt to cobble together a new ``Solid South'' that stretches from Richmond, Va., to El Paso, Texas. Except in roughly 20 congressional districts where blacks or Hispanics are expected to retain their majorities, depending on redistricting vagaries, House Democrats who were once dominant in the region have moved to the edge of extinction since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. In the Senate, Southern Republicans outnumber Democrats, 16-10.
But the wide-open spaces that surround this city may be a major, potentially momentum-shifting exception to the trend. In what some still term ``yellow dog'' Democratic country (translation: voters would vote for a yellow dog before they'd choose a Republican), candidates are clashing in contests that may test the popularity of the GOP-controlled Congress and the success of an intense Democratic counterattack.
Republicans naturally maintain that they will continue their march through Dixie on Election Day. In their best-case scenario, the party emerges with at least half of the 30-member Texas delegation (where they now fill 12 seats) and all of the 17 House seats in Arkansas and nearby Louisiana and Oklahoma except for the idiosyncratic district centered in New Orleans.
Democrats, of course, dismiss the GOP brashness as posturing based on outdated assumptions. ``The South is, in many respects, like the rest of the country'' in this year's election, said Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ``Most Democrats are conservative candidates with a record of community and legislative service.''
Which side prevails in the region will go a long way toward determining partisan control on Capitol Hill. If the GOP succeeds in the half-dozen districts that fan around Texarkana--and in the four states where Senate battles are being fought--Democrats can probably forget about regaining control of the House and Senate any time soon. If Republicans lose them all, their congressional majorities may be history.
Two nearby districts are likely to return their Republican incumbents to the House. Each of the other four districts--the focus of this report--have historically been yellow dog Democratic territory. Each district is heavily rural; no city has more than 60,000 residents. Each district has voted firmly Democratic in past congressional elections. But in each district, the incumbent is retiring, setting the stage for contests that have significant national implications.
Of the candidates, each Democrat is an experienced officeholder, well-known locally. The GOP's bench is much thinner. As has been the case for many recently successful Republicans elsewhere, most of their leading local candidates, including two doctors, have never run for elective office; the exceptions this year are two former House Members, one who retired as a Democrat in 1990, another who was redistricted out of his seat in 1992.
For the most part, local Democrats are warily keeping their distance from their party's national leaders. That includes President Clinton, whose hometown--Hope, Ark.--is only about 30 miles away. ``He has a national scope,'' Max Sandlin, the Democratic nominee for the local House seat in Texas, said of Clinton. ``I have a pro-East Texas scope.'' But Sandlin and others voice some of the party themes about Republican excesses that Democrats have emphasized on Capitol Hill.TURNING TIDES
Though some of their candidates aren't household words, Republican planners maintain that their party has a good chance to win the open seats. They expect their candidates to be well financed and thus able to take full advantage of their fervently conservative views. And despite the Democrats' control of most area courthouses, the GOP has already proved successful in legislative races at both the state and national levels.
On the eastern side of the local border, Republican Reps. Jay W. Dickey Jr. and Jim McCrery are likely to win reelection without difficulty in their Arkansas and Louisiana districts. Republicans hold the two Senate seats in both Oklahoma and Texas. Despite initial Democratic hopes, Sens. James M. Inhofe and Phil Gramm appear to be safe bets for reelection in those states.
Democrats confidently respond that traditional voting patterns will determine the local House races. ``A moderate-to-conservative Democrat will prevail 10 out of 10 times, given comparable funding,'' said Texas Democrat Jim Chapman, who holds the local House seat and is retiring after his third-place finish in his party's Senate primary.
Such a candidate, he added, continues to appeal to ``a dirt-under-the-fingernails Bubba who goes to church, worries about moral values. . . , is terribly suspicious of the right-wing Republican agenda and hates [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich.''
The several hard-fought campaigns within 200 miles of this town are an apt metaphor for political battles that are shaping up everywhere this fall. In response to Sandlin's criticism of Gingrich and GOP cuts in federal programs, Republican Ed Merritt, a lawyer seeking Chapman's seat, said, ``Max Sandlin stands for business as usual and more government control.''
On the Arkansas side of the border, a volatile contest is under way for the Senate seat of Democrat David E. Pryor, who is retiring. That campaign was jolted by the decision of Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee to abandon his Senate bid and replace Jim Guy Tucker, the Democrat who resigned last month as governor after being convicted on federal charges brought by the Whitewater special prosecutor.
Back in Texas, a heated contest is under way in the House district that is a several hours' drive to the south. And just to the northwest in Oklahoma, party-switcher Wes Watkins hopes to reclaim the House seat that he held for 14 years before he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990. If he succeeds, and if a Republican wins a vacant Senate seat in Louisiana, they will be the first Republicans to hold those seats in this century. Also in the Bayou State, a fistful of contenders are battling to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.WELCOME TO DEMOCRAT COUNTRY
This is an area with a rich political legacy, especially for House Democrats. Bonham, Texas, the hometown of Sam Rayburn, Speaker for 17 years and one of the century's most influential lawmakers, is about 130 miles west of Texarkana. To the northwest, some 180 miles away, is McAlester, Okla., the birthplace of former Democratic Speaker Carl Albert, who retired there 20 years ago.
And this city was the home of Wright Patman, whose 50 years in the House included a reign over what is now the Banking and Financial Services Committee, which he often used as a platform to bash high interest rate policies fostered by Wall Street and the Federal Reserve Board. At least rhetorically, Patman's populist appeal survives locally as a broad skepticism about anything big--including government, business and organized labor. (Texarkana is also the birthplace of Ross Perot, the billionaire and presidential campaign gadfly, who pulled up roots after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.)
It's no coincidence that this area was the birthplace of so many long-serving Democrats. Few ever had to worry about Republican challenges. (The intraparty fights for their seats once they retired, by contrast, have often been fierce.)
After they paid penance to a few local projects, the lawmakers could focus without fear on weightier national issues and on the internal politics of their party and the House. They held a disproportionate share of leadership posts and committee chairmanships.
Over all, those seats that were safely Democratic for much of the 20th century helped create and maintain the party's Solid South. That hold on the region, in turn, became the cornerstone of the Democrats' control of the House from 1930-94 for all but four years. Since 1992, however, the tide has turned at a stunning pace and with huge partisan consequences. If House Republicans, for example, increase their total to 90 of the 137 seats in the 13 southern states, they could retain their majority by winning only 128 of the 298 districts (42 per cent) in the remainder of the nation, a manageable challenge.
Elsewhere in the South, Republicans have captured some mostly rural House seats in areas such as eastern North Carolina and southern Georgia. But those districts, more than those in this area, have often included major industrial plants and military bases that have served as fertile ground for Republican voters, in contrast with the more-Democratic farm communities.
Most of the Republicans' southern gains have come in suburban areas with exploding population gains, from the area surrounding North Carolina's Research Triangle down to Atlanta and much of Florida and west to Dallas and Houston. Because, among other factors, their residents are younger and and have higher per capita incomes than residents of the rural districts, those areas posed an easy political challenge for Republicans.
What follows are sketches of the competitive races under way in the area's yellow dog districts.RENEWED CLASH
Chapman has represented Texas's northeastern corner in the House since a 1985 special election held after President Reagan nominated Sam B. Hall Jr., one of the most conservative Democrats in the chamber, to be a federal judge. The campaign that preceded that election involved a fiercely expensive, albeit unsuccessful, effort by Republicans--led by newly elected Sen. Gramm--to show that they could capture once-impregnable Democratic districts.
The 1991 redistricting slightly weakened the district's Democratic tilt. In 1992, Clinton won the district by only 1 percentage point over President Bush; 23 per cent voted for favorite-son Perot. Local Democrats contend that their recent success in building an active party apparatus, with aid from organized labor, has helped them and will benefit Democrat Sandlin. ``We have had a coordinated effort to direct party and state money to East Texas,'' a party operative said.
``People in this district are looking for candidates who are practical and not ideologues,'' Sandlin, an attorney, said. ``The 1994 election [when the GOP seized control of Congress] was an expression of dissatisfaction by the voters. It was not a swing to the Republicans.'' Sandlin, who also runs the local oil business of his wealthy father-in-law, spent $1 million of his own money on the primary victory.
During an interview in his windowless campaign office, Merritt asserted that the tide is inexorably moving toward the Republicans. ``Small business and the property-rights movements are growing forces and are politically active,'' he said. Citing Sandlin's support from unions and trial lawyers, he called the contest one of ``business versus anti-business.''
Democrats view the stagnant local economy as a partisan plus because, of all the districts in the state, this is the one with the largest share of elderly voters; they'll take out their anger on any Republican they encounter on the ballot, Democrats contend. ``Mr. Gingrich and his ilk have dug in their heels with an ideology that is mean-spirited,'' Sandlin said. ``People see cuts in medicare and student loans as the government breaking its word. . . . Our people also object to Mr. Gingrich's high-handedness in shutting down the government and then paying federal employees who didn't work'' during the budget deadlock late last year.
For his part, Merritt, who praised Gingrich's ``vision for the future of America,'' said the Speaker is often ``misunderstood,'' but added that he and the record of the Republican-controlled Congress ``play very well in this district.'' A political neophyte whose private legal practice has included extensive work defending companies from insurance claims and lawsuits, Merritt has sought to build a grass-roots coalition of social and fiscal conservatives.
Although Sandlin and Merritt this spring won competitive primaries, both face the challenge of expanding their appeal beyond their separate county bases in the southern part of the district. ``Whoever carries [Texarkana-centered] Bowie County will probably win,'' Chamber of Commerce president Lee said. ``That will be determined by organization and local exposure.''
Sandlin cited the Democrats' fourfold advantage over Republicans in turnout in the primaries. But Merritt responded that the difference resulted mostly from the focus on local races in which the Democratic winner will often take office without Republican opposition. Recent GOP candidates for governor and the Senate have won 54-60 per cent of the vote in the district.
Sandlin, who calls himself ``mainstream,'' faces lingering bitterness from supporters of the more-conservative Jo Ann Howard, his chief primary foe; her husband defeated Chapman in a 1984 state Senate race.
But Robert Slagle, who stepped down last year after 15 years as the Democratic Party chairman in Texas and is Sandlin's chief aide, dismissed talk of divisions. ``Democrats are optimistic, and they want to win,'' he said.
After the Supreme Court ruled in June that three House districts in Dallas and Houston were unconstitutional ``racial gerrymanders,'' a federal court in Houston held hearings on ordering redistricting changes before the November elections. Although some Republican proposals would have increased GOP strength in the contest for Chapman's seat, the Houston courts' Aug. 6 ruling affected only the lines for 13 districts in the two metropolitan areas. Assuming the new map remains in place, it will probably increase House seats for the GOP elsewhere in the state.LITTLE DIXIE
When Oklahoman Watkins hosted a 7 A.M. breakfast for three dozen supporters at a restaurant in Broken Bow, a town whose economy has been rejuvenated by hundreds of jobs at local chicken and timber-processing plants, his friendly handshakes and rhetorical polish reflected the experience of 14 years in the House. But he moved quickly in his speech to what looms as the central issue in his bid to replace Democrat Bill Brewster, his successor in the House, who is retiring.
``To run for a legislative body, I have to be in one of the parties . . . to be effective for you,'' said Watkins, who was state chairman for Perot in 1992 and won 23 per cent of the vote statewide as an independent in the 1994 governor's race (but 46 per cent in the House district he is seeking to recapture). ``Politics is not an end in itself. It's a vehicle to do constructive things for people.'' Even as a Democrat, he was independent of party leaders. He won his House seat in 1976 when he unexpectedly defeated Speaker Albert's chief of staff and handpicked successor, who was backed by most of the local party leaders.
Watkins, who served on the Appropriations Committee as a Democrat, hopes his ticket to Washington is a written pledge he received from Gingrich and other House GOP leaders. Their letter, which came days after he announced his party switch early this year, promised him a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, his seniority restored.
GOP leaders gave two other party switchers coveted seats on the tax-writing committee during the past year. But Gregory H. Laughlin of Texas, whose district extends from the Houston suburbs to the Austin suburbs, lost a primary runoff in April, and James A. Hayes of Louisiana is running for the Senate.
Although Watkins does not hide or apologize for his new party mates, he wants voters to view him as simply somebody who would fight for their interests. ``I'm the same Wes Watkins,'' he told a local reporter during a walk when he shook many hands in the small town. ``I don't have horns.''
But Republicans might just as well have horns, given their tiny numbers in the state's southeastern district, which has been known as Little Dixie. Broken Bow Republicans could meet in a telephone booth, local city manager Mark Guthrie said. Still, party stalwarts contend, the fact that Inhofe won the district in his comfortable victory over then-Rep. Dave McCurdy in the 1994 Senate race is an important omen.
At his law office in Ardmore in the district's southwestern corner, Democratic state Sen. Darryl Roberts said that voters won't buy Watkins's new wrappings. ``There is a perception that Wes doesn't know who he is, that he is an opportunist,'' said Roberts, the former state Senate majority leader and the front-runner for his party's nomination to succeed Brewster. ``His business is self-promotion.'' Although Roberts concedes that Republicans have gained strength, he said that Gingrich and Congress are unpopular because ``their agenda is prone to support big business and special interests.''
But Brewster, whose daughter Karel is a top Roberts aide, warned that Roberts could face electoral problems if he is ``pictured as a liberal or a lawyer.'' The district ``wants to be Democratic, but it's real conservative,'' said Brewster, the lone Democrat in the state's six-member House delegation that was 5-1 Democratic only a decade ago.
Roberts faces another problem before he can focus full-time on Watkins--an Aug. 27 primary against two opponents and a Sept. 17 runoff if no one receives at least 50 per cent of the vote. Mike Newport, who won 29 per cent of the vote against Brewster in the 1994 primary, said he is running as a farmer, a strong Democrat and a citizen-politician. ``We're not ready for the same old same old,'' he said, referring to Roberts.
Democratic in-fighting presumably would only help Watkins, who has raised more than $600,000 and faces token primary opposition. Some of Watkins's contributions stem from his close ties to important local industries, including oil and cattle. Mike Cantrell, the president of the Washington-based Independent Petroleum Association of America and a resident of Brewster's district, said his Oklahoma members would contribute $100,000 to Watkins.
``We are 85 per cent Democratic in this town,'' rancher Bob Drake of Davis said in his country office a half-hour drive north of Ardmore. ``But we are very socially conservative. And the national Democratic Party is not particularly popular here.'' Drake, who served last year as president of the National Cattlemen's Association and maintains a handsome Black Angus herd, said he is supporting Watkins because ``Wes is a good conservative . . . who won't be a yes man for anybody'' and because Roberts is backed by labor and the trial lawyers.
For Watkins, apparently, the only way he can lose in his old-style district is if he comes across as too much of a new-style Republican. ``I have more of a comfort zone running as a Republican than as a Democrat on the national scene,'' he said. ``But I don't accept party labels.''REDRAWN LINES
In northeast Louisiana, the candidates are campaigning in a revived Mississippi River district that had existed for decades but then was lost amid the flurry of inventive redistricting undertaken in 1992 to create the state's second black-majority district. A series of federal court rulings led to the scrapping of those creative boundaries and to the early retirement plans of Democratic Rep. Cleo T. Fields, whose Baton Rouge home is outside the new district. But for now, at least, the complications continue as the three leading candidates offer disparate analyses of the contest.
The latest version of the district, which had been represented by conservative Democrats until 1992, bears political similarities to Republican McCrery's adjacent district: a black voting population of about 28 per cent, Republican-leaning in national elections but with a limited GOP infrastructure. The larger city of Shreveport in McCrery's district, however, provides a more-natural Republican base than do Monroe and Alexandria, the chief cities in the open district.
Democrat Francis Thompson, who has served for two decades as a state representative in several rural parishes near Monroe, contends that his experience gives him an advantage in the Sept. 21 nonpartisan primary, which has six candidates. ``This is a conservative district,'' he said in his tiny office in Monroe. ``But it's 75 per cent Democratic. I'm a very conservative Democrat, [but] I have a big heart for people who can't take care of themselves.'' He cited his conservative views on school prayer, abortion and a balanced budget.
With his superior fund raising and strong support in the black community, Thompson said, he has a good chance to win the election without the runoff required if no candidate receives at least half the vote. But other political sources cautioned that black turnout will be low because no prominent blacks are running in the Senate or House contests. (For a report on the Louisiana Senate race, see National Journal, 8/3/96, p. 1650.)
The two other leading candidates, both Republicans, are from the two cities at the opposite ends of the district. Clyde C. Holloway, from the Alexandria area, served six years in the House before redistricting eliminated his seat. Holloway, whose polling gives him a sizable lead, lost close races to Republican and Democratic incumbents in two different districts in 1992 and 1994. His biggest strength in the new district, he said, is that ``I'm a good rural Republican. . . . I'm a down-to-earth guy who has the ability to get Democratic votes,'' as he showed during his three successful House elections. Referring to the shifts in the national parties, he added, ``there is no such thing as a national conservative Democrat.''
John Cooksey, a Monroe ophthalmologist and first-time candidate, describes his chief opponents as ``career politicians.'' He ranks himself with the reformers who have recently emerged as major forces in state politics. Thompson, he said, is like Clinton: ``He says he's conservative but he votes liberal.'' As for Holloway, Cooksey said, one difference between them is that he would not take federal retirement or health care benefits. Because of lower turnout among blacks and other potential Thompson supporters, Cooksey predicted that he and Holloway would be the two top vote-getters in the primary. In a runoff, Cooksey added, he would prevail because Monroe has a larger population base in the district than does Alexandria.
With the new district boundaries and Louisiana's tradition of late-breaking contests, any of the three outcomes seems possible.WHOSE VALUES?
The remaining yellow dog district is held by Texas Democrat Charles Wilson. After winning reelection easily for most of his career, the 12-term veteran had three successive campaigns since 1990 against business executive Donna Peterson, with Wilson winning 56-57 per cent of the vote in each contest.
Republicans cite those returns as evidence that a candidate more forceful than Peterson could win the seat that Wilson is giving up. ``Republicans are still on a roll,'' nominee Brian Babin said. ``People want less government regulation and a return to traditional morality. . . . I have East Texas values.'' Babin, a small-town dentist, has received help from first-term Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., another dentist.
Like the other leading Democratic candidates, Jim Turner is a veteran legislator with 10 years in the state House and Senate and additional service as a top aide in the mid-1980s to Democratic Gov. Mark White. The bipartisan approach he has taken on many issues in Austin helps explain why he has received contributions from dozens of political action committees representing Texas-based companies and trade associations.
``I have a record as a mainstream, fiscally conservative Democrat,'' Turner said. ``That's the kind of Democrat who gets elected.''
Turner has another apparent advantage over his opponent. The district has a more pronounced Democratic leaning than the three nearby open-seat districts covered in this survey; Democrat Michael S. Dukakis won 52 per cent of the vote in the 1988 presidential election. Aside from seven districts in south Texas with a Hispanic majority, this East Texas district has the lowest per capita income in the state.
Babin said he would cite specific votes to undermine Turner's conservative claims. He also points out that most of Turner's state Senate district lies to the west of the congressional seat that he is seeking. In response to Turner's Austin-based backing, Babin supporters cite his endorsements from groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Texas Farm Bureau. ``The grass-root conservative network finally has a credible conservative candidate who won't back down,'' Ryan Irwin, Babin's campaign manager, said.
As in Chapman's district to the north, the candidates to succeed Wilson faced the uncertainty of possible redistricting changes. By keeping the east Texas lines intact, however, the federal court denied a possible boost to Babin.
Turner's charming hometown of Crockett, named for the Texas pioneer who died defending the Alamo, may be an apt metaphor for the current turmoil in the region. As a Whig and an opponent of Andrew Jackson's populists, Davy Crockett moved to Texas in 1835 after he lost reelection to the House in Tennessee. His surviving Texas comrades prevailed, of course, in gaining their independence from Mexico. But the Whigs' Republican successors subsequently fell on hard times throughout the South. Now, as the two parties struggle for control, even the old frontier king might be impressed with the intense combat.
This is the year the GOP hopes to finish its transformation of a Solid Democratic South to an equally Solid Republican South.
By Richard E. Cohen and National Journal
August 10, 1996