ATLANTA (AP) — Democrats in the conservative Deep South are looking to recapture some old political magic in the 2014 elections.
President Barack Obama's party is running candidates with familiar names, like Carter and Nunn in Georgia, in hopes of rebuilding clout where Republicans rule. Given their recent political struggles in the region, some Democrats say they have nothing to lose.
"We need known quantities while we continue to build our bench for the future," said Georgia Democratic Chairman DuBose Porter, a failed candidate for governor in 2010. "This gives us a short game and a long game."
The candidates are carefully managing their family connections and their own political histories — a tactic that reflects the risk of looking like a party of the past and the sheer difficulty of winning in the face of widespread disdain for Obama and his signature health care law.
Southern Democratic Party leaders counter that it's still their best shot to restore an old majority coalition: blacks, urban liberals and just enough whites from small towns and rural areas. That would mean remixes and retreads successfully luring voters who have trended Republican or stayed home in recent years while the GOP built a virtual monopoly on statewide offices.
Republicans, predictably, remain confident.
"It's hard to run an effective campaign when you're running from the president," said Katon Dawson, a former GOP chairman in South Carolina, arguing that it's difficult to go after conservatives and independents without alienating liberals.
Chip Lake, a Republican campaign adviser in Georgia, added, "They've got the same problem in statewide races in the South that we have nationally in presidential elections. It's not so much about the candidates as it is a problem with the math."
In Georgia, Democratic hopes are pinned on new generations of old political families. In South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi former officials and a previously unsuccessful candidate are waging comebacks.
Georgia's likely lineup for November looks a lot like the 1970s, when governor-turned-president Jimmy Carter and Sen. Sam Nunn towered over the state's politics. This year, it's Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive in Atlanta, making her political debut by running for her father's old job in Washington. Jason Carter, who toddled around the White House Rose Garden and Oval Office when his grandfather was president, already serves in the Georgia Senate, but he's making his first statewide bid by running for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal's seat.
In South Carolina, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen is trying to unseat Republican Nikki Haley four years after she beat him by 60,000 votes, a margin of 4.4 percent.
Mississippi Democrats, meanwhile, hope former Rep. Travis Childers can knock off the winner of a potentially bruising Senate Republican primary between Sen. Thad Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel, a state lawmaker.
"We're losing elections because Democrats stay home and we're not persuading independents," Mississippi Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole said. "In a statewide race, we have to look to our known prospects first to get those folks back."
And in Alabama, where Republicans hold every statewide federal, executive and judicial office, Democrats are turning to former congressman and state legislator Parker Griffith to take on popular Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, even though Griffith has switched parties multiple times.
Georgia Democrats say the races are an opportunity to prove what they've claimed for years, that demographic shifts in the growing state will loosen the GOP's grip and make it a battleground — including in the 2016 presidential election — alongside Virginia and North Carolina.
So far the Democratic candidates have tried to steer their campaigns away from the past, despite their familiar names.
Carter's campaign biography calls him a "ninth-generation Georgian," but alludes to his 89-year-old grandfather only with a notation of the grandson serving as a Carter Center trustee. When Jason Carter first ran for state senator in 2010, he didn't tap his family connection publicly until days before the election; he and Jimmy Carter knocked on doors together in Carter's district, just east of downtown Atlanta and the former president's library and international humanitarian center. The candidate rarely mentions his grandfather in public remarks, instead using campaign stops and Senate floor speeches to draw contrasts with Deal on education and other issues.
Nunn, who is on leave of absence as CEO of former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light Foundation, is far more likely to emphasize her ties to the first family of Republican politics than to mention her 75-year-old father. It was the elder Nunn — not his daughter — who appeared publicly with Vice President Joe Biden when he came to Atlanta this month to raise money for Senate Democratic candidates.
After she filed papers to be on the June primary ballot, the younger Nunn bristled at questions about never holding office and capitalizing on her name. She trumpets her first-timer status as a benefit: "I don't believe career politicians are the answer."
But Porter argues that well-known names allow a targeted appeal other Democrats might not have.
"Michelle and Jason can raise money and energize young people in their own right," Porter said, adding that as professionals with school-age children — Carter is an Atlanta attorney — they can appeal to others like them, including independents and Republicans in the populous Atlanta suburbs.
"Beyond that," Porter said, "their last names get other folks to take a closer look. It provides voters a comfort level they might not otherwise have."
It's those "other folks" — older, conservative whites outside metropolitan areas — who've been increasingly hard for Democrats to reach.
Sheheen notes often that he grew up in the same town where he now practices law. His father and uncle were active in state government, though they weren't household names. The home county that sends him to the Legislature opted for Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012 by 18 percentage points, well ahead of Romney's 10-point margin statewide.
Sheheen supports expanding the Medicaid insurance program under Obama's health care law, something that appeals to core Democrats, including black voters who make up more than 30 percent of the electorate. But he couches it in terms of local economies — healthy workers, financially stable community hospitals — in an effort to target more pragmatic Romney voters.
The outreach is more complicated for Childers in Mississippi and Griffith in Alabama. In Congress, both voted against Obama's health care overhaul but were unable to hold their congressional seats in the 2010 Republican tide.
Childers, then a longtime county clerk, won a 2008 special House election and months later was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote, well ahead of Obama's 37 percent in the district.
Griffith won his seat with 52 percent, which was 14 percentage points ahead of Obama.
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