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Southern States Show Signs of Shifting from Red to Blue

October 31, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Key GOP strongholds Georgia, North Carolina and Florida show possible big gains for Democrats. Reporters probe the reasons behind the shifts in presidential and down-ballot races.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Some reliably Republican stalwarts have turned into real battlegrounds this year, in particular, Virginia, North Carolina and even Georgia.

The presidential contest is having an impact on state races, too. One example: North Carolina, where the Republican incumbent, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, faces a serious challenge from Democrat Kay Hagan. The tenor of that campaign can be seen in one of Dole’s TV ads and in Hagan’s response.

SEN. ELIZABETH DOLE (R), North Carolina: I’m Elizabeth Dole, and I approve this message.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan’s honor.

ELLEN JOHNSON, Executive Director, Godless Americans: There is no God to rely on. There was no Jesus.

BILL O’REILLY, Fox News Host: Well, taking “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, you’re down with that?

DAVID SILVERMAN, Godless Americans: We’re down with that.

BILL O’REILLY: “In God we trust,” you’re going to whip that off the money?

DAVID SILVERMAN: Yes, we would.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras, took godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?

WOMAN: There is no God.

KAY HAGAN (D-NC), U.S. Senate Candidate: I’m Kay Hagan. And Elizabeth Dole’s attacks on my Christian faith are offensive. She even faked my voice in her TV ad to make you think I don’t believe in God.

Well, I believe in God. I taught Sunday school. My faith guides my life, and Sen. Dole knows it.

Sure, politics is a tough business, but I approve this message because my campaign is about creating jobs and fixing our economy, not bearing false witness against fellow Christians.

Sen. Dole loses support

Rob Christensen
Raleigh News and Observer
[M]ost of the big-name Democrats in the state passed on the race because they saw a year ago, they thought Elizabeth Dole was invulnerable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on these southern states in play, we turn to Rob Christensen, political reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer and author of the book, "The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics"; and Jim Galloway, political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Thank you both for being with us.

And, Rob Christensen, to you first, what do those two ads say about the state of the Senate race in your state?

ROB CHRISTENSEN, Raleigh News and Observer: Well, it's obviously a Hail Mary pass by Sen. Dole. She would not have run such a risky ad if she wasn't in some trouble in this state.

It is an ad that -- designed to get the base out, base vote out for Republicans, but it's very risky, because Elizabeth Dole has also had a lot of support from suburban women, for example.

And so this has been -- she risks losing the so-called Southern Living magazine voters, who are not particularly ideological on this, because it was so, so tough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, she started out not only as the incumbent, but the very, very well-known incumbent. What happened?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Well, there's a couple of things. And you're exactly right, Judy. In fact, most of the big-name Democrats in the state passed on the race because they saw a year ago, they thought Elizabeth Dole was invulnerable.

A couple of things to think about. Elizabeth Dole, when she ran in 2002, she was recruited by the White House. President Bush campaigned with her five times in North Carolina, more than any other candidate in the country, except for his brother, Jeb Bush, in Florida.

And now, of course, obviously, Bush's numbers have collapsed. And so the race in 2002 was right after 9/11. National security was the issue. This time, it's the economy, and the economy's not doing well here.

North Carolina transitions

Rob Christensen
Raleigh News and Observer
North Carolina is a very fast-growing sunbelt state. We've had millions of new voters move into the state over the last 20 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me quickly turn you, then, to the presidential contest in North Carolina, where Sen. Obama is ahead by a few points as an average of the number of the polls we've been looking at. Help us understand what's going on at that level.

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Well, there's a couple of things going on, Judy. One is the economy. And not only are we shedding jobs in the traditional old economy, like textiles and furniture, but even the new economy is hurting. Look at Wachovia Bank, the big Charlotte bank, just been taken over by Wells Fargo.

And then you have the Iraq war. Even though North Carolina has a lot of military bases, the war has lost popularity here, as elsewhere.

The demographics are changing. North Carolina is a very fast-growing sunbelt state. We've had millions of new voters move into the state over the last 20 years.

And while a lot of them are Republicans and independents, you might call them Starbucks Republicans. They're more moderate on social issues. They're more open to -- they're not the old-style Jesse Helms Republicans that we're so used to in North Carolina. And they're more open to an Obama.

And the other thing to look at here in North Carolina is that usually Democratic primaries or Republican primaries, either, don't matter in North Carolina, because they're held in May. Usually the nomination is all sewn up by then.

Not this time. This time, in fact, what happened was that North Carolina mattered, and Obama had a tremendous effort here and, of course, beat Hillary Clinton here.

He just transitioned in May right into the general election. He had a huge political organization sitting here, and he has used that.

The McCain people were very slow to combat this. They didn't really take the Obama effort here seriously until after Labor Day, and they've been playing catch-up ever since.

Race tightens in Georgia

Jim Galloway
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
If you're only talking likely voters, then McCain pulls ahead, and he's just edging out 50 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's move a few miles south, two states down, to Georgia and to Jim Galloway. Jim, in your state, Sen. McCain is up, but only by a few points, again, averaging the polls. You've got a third-party candidate. Give us the lay of the land there.

JIM GALLOWAY, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Well, Judy, that's exactly right. And the polls shift according -- as the voter pool, the perceptions of the voter pool changes.

If you're only talking likely voters, then McCain pulls ahead, and he's just edging out 50 percent. But if you start to conceive of a voter pool that we haven't seen before, one with much heavier black turnout, with many more young people, then McCain starts to sink rapidly.

And there are many people here who think that the race will turn on two things. One is the performance of Bob Barr, the Libertarian presidential candidate, who's a former Georgia congressman, served four terms here and left quite popular, and the influx of new voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what do you -- well, let me ask you about those new voters, because Georgia has not gone Republican in the presidential contest since 1992. What's changed?

JIM GALLOWAY: Well, what's changed is, as with North Carolina...

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm sorry, has not gone Democratic. I misspoke.

JIM GALLOWAY: Exactly, exactly. I mean, our last -- we last went Democratic in 1992, with Bill Clinton's first election. And ever since then, we've been just highly, highly reliable -- a reliable Republican territory, so reliable that you'll recall that, right before Labor Day, Barack Obama dropped his ads here, withdrew some of his paid staff.

McCain has never had a headquarters in Georgia he was so confident of Georgia. He still doesn't. He was planning to piggyback off U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, off of that campaign.

What's happened is, quite frankly, the economy and Barack Obama. Barack Obama has just brought out a surge of voters that we just have not seen.

Georgia has one of the -- now has one of the earlier voting periods in the nation, 45 days. We started 45 days before this last Tuesday. We started in September voting.

And, consistently, African-Americans have made up 35 percent-plus of the turnout. And usually in the last few cycles, it's been right at 24 percent.

Turnout is key in most states

Jim Galloway
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Presidential race in Georgia, I think, is just going to be a matter of whether African-Americans keep up their numbers and, quite frankly, voter fatigue among Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as you just mentioned, the Republican incumbent, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, facing a tough challenge from the Democrat, Jim Martin.

JIM GALLOWAY: This wasn't supposed to happen at all. The DSCC just really had to persuade Martin to enter the race this last spring. They had to put some hard pressure on him.

And he had to go through a Democratic primary runoff and had no money as of early August. So his campaign really wasn't going anywhere, quite frankly, until the bailout.

The bailout is central to this campaign right now. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, they took a risk, and they linked up with Democrats. They joined the Democratic effort in the Senate to pass that $700 million rescue package, while all of Georgia's House members, all seven, voted against it, and that's created a terrific split in the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, what could that race turn on? I want to ask both of you that question, the presidential race in Georgia.

JIM GALLOWAY: Presidential race in Georgia, I think, is just going to be a matter of whether African-Americans keep up their numbers and, quite frankly, voter fatigue among Republicans. The lines are going to be extremely long, and it's going to be a matter of whether these Republicans stand there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quickly, Rob Christensen, in the presidential contest in North Carolina, what's that going to turn on?

ROB CHRISTENSEN: Turnout, turnout, turnout. We have early voting here, strong African-American turnout, also a lot of young people. We have a lot of colleges and universities here.

The metropolitan areas are going to be very strongly for Obama. And in the countryside and the small town, the rural areas are going to be McCain country, but turnout is going to be the key.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rob Christensen and Jim Galloway, we appreciate it. Thank you both.