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Up-and-comers may be nominees in future
ATLANTA — For decades, Southerners put a firm imprint on national politics from both sides of the aisle, holding the White House for 25 of the past 50 years and producing a legion of Capitol Hill giants during the 20th century. But that kind of obvious power has waned as Democrats and Republicans in the region navigate the consequences of tidal shifts in demographics, migration and party identity.
This is the second consecutive presidential election without a Southerner on either major party ticket. That has happened in back-to-back elections only once before, 1968 and 1972, since Franklin Roosevelt, a New Yorker, won four consecutive elections with overwhelming support across what was then Democrats’ solid South. (The 2008 candidates were Democrats Barack Obama of Illinois and Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, and Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin of Alaska. This year, it’s Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, and Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.)
Besides the national dearth, the South’s congressional power players are either aging icons — black Democrats John Lewis of Georgia and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina in the House— or hail from the region’s periphery — Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
But Kentucky was a Civil War border state, while Virginia, for all its antebellum credentials, is increasingly racially, culturally and politically diverse. That puts both states outside the Bible Belt, Deep South core that, fairly or unfairly, has long defined the region on the national stage.
This is all new for a proud region that produced Presidents George W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Jimmy Carter of Georgia. George H.W. Bush claimed Texas as well, despite his roots as an East Coast moderate, and he was a national figure by the time he was elected.
Elected officials, party leaders and campaign strategists on both sides cite the old rule that politics is cyclical and say the table is set for their return to prominence, depending on how the parties and their candidates present themselves to the public.
The Republican Party does have a deep Southern bench, with governors like 40-year-old Nikki Haley of South Carolina and 41-year-old Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, along with a host of neophyte senators and representatives. This new generation of Southern Republicans must compete among themselves and with the likes of Mr. Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who delivered the GOP convention’s keynote address.
“We’ve got some impressive new folks out there,” said Timmy Teepell, a Republican campaign strategist and former chief of staff to Mr. Jindal.
Democrats, who have historically reached for regional balance, find hope in demographic shifts.
Barack Obama won Virginia and North Carolina in 2008 on the strength of young and non-white voters. Florida has long been a competitive melting pot. Southerners under age 30 or 35 are up for grabs, as well. Presidential exit polls from 2008 showed younger voters in some Southern states split evenly in states where Mr. Obama still lost by wide margins.
Arkansas Democratic Chairman Will Bond said his state provides a blueprint.
Arkansas is the last former Confederate state where Democrats still control both chambers of the Legislature. Republicans cut into their majorities in the national GOP sweep of 2010, but couldn’t take over. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, meanwhile, won every county on his way to a second term.
Mr. Bond said the Arkansas party, besides enjoying the afterglow of having produced a president, has focused relentlessly on fiscal responsibility, education and economic development. “We just have to do a better job of telling our story across the South,” he said.
By Brahma Chellaney
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