By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The solidly Republican South suddenly looks a little less solid.
Tuesday's upset win by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama, coupled with last month's Democratic sweep in Virginia, has given the party new optimism about its 2018 prospects in the South and other conservative, heavily rural regions where Republicans have dominated for decades.
Jones, a former federal prosecutor, took advantage of the controversy over sexual misconduct allegations against his Republican opponent Roy Moore to become the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in Alabama in a quarter-century.
The Jones campaign also offered a template for how Democrats can win in the South, strategists said: Field a strong candidate, crank up turnout among the region's sizable bloc of African-American voters, keep the liberal national party brand at arm's length and compete hard in every county and region.
Add in the grass-roots energy of the liberal resistance to President Donald Trump, the disaffection of moderate suburbanites turned off by Trump and a conservative wing sapped of enthusiasm by Republican infighting, and Democrats see an opportunity for a brighter future in the South starting in next year's midterm elections.
"You can hear that Republican wall in the South cracking. Doug Jones and Virginia are just the beginning," said Phil Noble, a Democratic business and technology consultant who is running for governor in South Carolina.
Republicans are not convinced, citing years of still unrealized Democratic predictions that demographic changes would turn Republican-dominated conservative states like Georgia and Texas into toss-ups.
"Democrats still have issues with their brand in large swaths of the country. They are the party of Nancy Pelosi, and that image is cemented in many voters' minds," said Brian Walsh, a former strategist for the Republican party's Senate campaign committee, referring to the House of Representatives Democratic leader, a liberal from San Francisco.
In the fight for control of Congress next year, wins on once hostile Southern turf could be crucial to the Democratic cause.
In the Senate, where Republicans' already narrow majority will be shaved to 51-49 once Jones is seated, Democrats will have to defend 26 seats, including 10 in states won by Trump. They would need to pick up two more Republican-held states to reclaim control.
Nevada and Arizona had been viewed as the only Republican-held seats vulnerable to a takeover next year. But Democrats now see possibilities in Tennessee, where popular former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen has jumped into the race for the seat of retiring Republican Bob Corker, and Mississippi, where incumbent Republican Roger Wicker could face a bruising primary challenge.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats need to gain 24 seats to win a majority. Their target list of 91 districts includes one each in Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky, two in Georgia and four in North Carolina.
USING THE SUBURBS TO "GET OUT OF THE DITCH"
"If the election were held today, I do think you could see Democrats winning in some areas of the country where Democrats haven't won in the last decade," said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama.
In addition to the congressional races, governors' contests in Georgia and South Carolina and state legislative races across the region will give Democrats a shot to compete in areas where they once dominated local politics but are now a minority party defined by liberal views on cultural issues such as abortion and gay rights.
McCrary said Jones and Democrat John Bel Edwards, who won the Louisiana governor's office in 2015, have shown it is possible to build a winning coalition in the South by energizing African-American voters while also appealing to white swing voters, soft Republicans and independents.
In Alabama, Jones made inroads with voters in Shelby County, the Republican suburbs of the state's biggest city, Birmingham, outpolling the results of Hillary Clinton there in last year's presidential election by about 20 percentage points.
That should be a warning sign to Republicans after Trump's weak performance in wealthier, more educated suburban districts in 2016 and Democrat Jon Ossoff's strong, though ultimately losing bid in a special election earlier this year for a congressional seat in a suburban Atlanta district that has been long held by Republicans, said David Hughes, a professor at Auburn University-Montgomery in Alabama.
"If Democrats want to get out of the ditch they are in in Alabama and the South, they will do it in the suburbs," said Hughes, an expert on Southern politics and judicial elections.
In the nine states that form the political backbone of the Republican-dominated South - Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South and North Carolina - Republicans will hold 17 of the 18 Senate seats once Jones takes office as well as 56 of the 70 House seats.
Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez acknowledged on Wednesday that the national party kept a low profile in Alabama even as it pumped money into turnout efforts targeting blacks and young voters because it knew that publicity about its involvement would not help Jones.
But Perez said the victory showed that the party, which has launched a 50-state organizing effort aimed at electing candidates at the local and state levels, can compete in the South and elsewhere.
"We can win in every zip code in America," Perez told reporters.
Democrats in Alabama said the party can start by learning lessons from Jones, who campaigned in every corner of the state and portrayed himself as a bridge builder who would listen to voters' concerns and work across the aisle to help Alabama.
"This is what we need to be doing more of, and not just at election time," Thomas Jackson, a black Alabama state representative, said at a fish fry attended by Jones in rural Alabama last month. "We can get a lot accomplished if we just sit down and talk with people more."
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Leslie Adler)