ATLANTA (AP) — To rebuild in the conservative South, Democratic leaders say their party must become more aggressive advocates for the middle class in an effort to energize African-Americans and attract whites.
After the Republicans' success in the midterm elections, many say the Democratic Party should openly embrace government as a tool for lifting people out of economic hardship. They are advocating a return to party roots by emphasizing education and public works spending, stronger voting rights laws, tighter bank regulation and labor-friendly policies such as a higher minimum wage.
"It's time to draw a line in the sand and not surrender our brand," said Rickey Cole, the party chairman in Mississippi. He believes that candidates have distanced themselves from the last half-century of Democratic principles.
"We don't need a New Coke formula," Cole said. "The problem is we've been out there trying to peddle Tab and R.C. Cola."
Even so, Cole and other Southern Democrats acknowledge divisions with prominent populists such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for president in 2016, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
A major challenge in the South is finding candidates who can win high-profile races now that Republicans dominate the leadership in state legislatures and across statewide offices.
Georgia Democrats thought legacy candidates were the answer. But Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn, former Sen. Sam Nunn's daughter, and gubernatorial challenger Jason Carter, former President Jimmy Carter's grandson, each fell short by about 8 percentage points despite well-funded campaigns and ambitious voter-registration drives.
Arkansas Democrats lost an open governor's seat and two-term Sen. Mark Pryor. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu led an eight-candidate primary but faces steep odds in a Dec. 6 runoff. Democrats' closest statewide loss in the South was North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan's 1.7 percentage point margin of defeat.
Exit polling suggests Democrats did not get the black turnout they needed and lost badly among whites. Nunn and Carter got fewer than 1 in 4 white votes, while Pryor took 31 percent and Landrieu 18 percent.
Should Landrieu lose, Democrats will be left without a single governor, U.S. senator or legislative chamber under their control from the Carolinas westward to Texas.
J.P. Morrell, a state senator from New Orleans, faulted a muddled message that began with candidates avoiding President Barack Obama. "You have to articulate why the economic policies we advocate as Democrats actually benefit people on the ground," Morrell said.
In Georgia, Nunn supported a minimum-wage increase and gender-pay equity, but her television ads focused on ending partisan rancor. Carter mostly accused Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of shortchanging public education. Nunn and Carter supported Medicaid expansion under Obama's health overhaul, but neither emphasized that argument in television advertising.
"No real economic message got through," said Vincent Fort, a state senator from Atlanta.
Georgia's Democratic chairman, DuBose Porter, defended Carter and Nunn as "world-class candidates" who can run again. He said Democrats "proved Georgia can be competitive in 2016," but he cautioned against looking for a nominee other than Clinton. "She puts us in play," he said.
In an interview, Carter focused more on tactics than on broad messaging, saying the party must register minority voters and continue outreach to whites. "If 120,000 people change their mind in this election, it comes out differently," he said. "But it takes a lot of time to build those relationships. ... You can't expect it to happen in one year."
Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist and commentator in North Carolina, said Hagan's margin in a GOP wave offers hope for 2016, when statewide executive offices will be on the ballot. Fresh arguments, he said, "will have to come from younger Democrats in the cities." He pointed to several young Democratic candidates who won county commission seats in Wake County, home to Raleigh.
Cole, the Mississippi chairman, acknowledged that any new approach won't close the party's gap in the South on abortion, same-sex marriage and guns, and said Democrats intensify that cultural disconnect with "identity politics."
While the party's positions on gay rights, minority voting access, women's rights and immigration are not wrong, Cole said, "those people who don't see themselves in those groups say, 'What have the Democrats got for me?'"
Unapologetic populism, he said, would "explain better that the Democratic Party is for justice and opportunity — with no qualifiers — for everyone."
Associated Press writer Kathleen Foody in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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