Mood Swings: The South Rises Again

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With each final tally of votes, the New South has taken on new meaning - if not new dimensions. No longer are conservative, working class states such as Georgia and Alabama considered Democratic strongholds. In Tuesday's normally sleepy mid-term elections, voters turned out in significantly high numbers to follow states like Texas, Mississippi and Florida in reversing post-Reconstruction political trends and give control to Republicans.

Make no mistake. Dixie-crats are now true-blue Republicans, responding to frequent visits by President George W. Bush, who came in the final weeks to several southern states to campaign and raise millions for Republican candidates vying for every office from governor to senator. But don't confuse them with the Dixie-crats of another era. Their conservatism is not about blatant racism. It's more subtle. It's about their shared ideology of Christianity, immigration and government interference; it's about the right to choose school vouchers among some voters as much as the right to choose abortion among others. The party affiliations may have changed but the views have not.

In many respects, politics here are just catching up to the changes that have been occurring in all sectors of life in the South. The battles outgoing senators Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond fought — integration, civil rights, tobacco, and communism — are relegated to the distant past. The new battles are pocketbook issues as well as quality of life issues — urban sprawl, fast track, globalization, the size of classrooms, the cost of prescription drugs. Republicans have become the rabid conservatives the southern Democrats used to be.

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Why the mood swing? The influx of Northerners to the South, the increasing development of rural lands for new city expansion and suburbs, the growth of high tech industries, and the tide of new immigrants have all transformed the South. Even the Democratic candidates who called upon former Vice President Al Gore to stump on their behalf in Tennessee seemed to be rejected by voters, raising questions about how viable Gore's political future may be.

How Barnes won Georgia

Nowhere was the Republican rise more evident than in Georgia, where Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, a rumored contender for the presidency in 2004, was expected to be elected to a second term, only to be voted out of office Tuesday. Not only did Democrats lose the governor's race, they lost a seat in the U.S. Senate and the role of speaker in the Georgia Assembly.

Barnes faired well in urban Republican counties of Cobb and Gwinnett. And he won Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, Macon and nearly every major city in the state. But Barnes was blitzed in the rapid-growth exurbs and rural areas, losing what used to be called the wool hat vote. Sonny Perdue, a former Democratic state Senator who switched parties in anticipation of Georgia going Republican, won by more than 2-1 in Hall County, and nearly 2-1 in Fayette and Walton counties.

That the state's political machinery remains at all in Democratic hands, despite going heavily for George W. Bush in 2000, can be largely credited to Barnes and his predecessor, Senator Zell Miller. Both are pro-gun, pro-business, pro-military, tax-cutters who have avoided identification with the national party, while still hanging on to the support of African-Americans, who make up nearly a third of the state's population.

Barnes has even been criticized by Republicans for being too cozy with real estate developers. That may have hurt him with independent voters, but it helped him raise more than $19 million for his campaign, compared to Perdue's $3 million. Barnes swamped state airwaves with political advertising, leaving little air time for whatever Perdue could afford. One Perdue ad, showing Barnes as a rampaging, Godzilla-like rat, apparently offended enough voters that the Barnes campaign put it on its own Web site.

Turning conventional wisdom on its head, several voters interviewed at the polls Tuesday said they were energized to come out to vote against negative campaigners. "Something really disturbed me, the behavior of candidates, calling people rats," said Velma Griggs, 73, who lives in Southwest DeKalb County, just outside the Atlanta city limits.

The Fall of Max Cleland

For Senator Max Cleland, the relentless rain that drenched much of Georgia on Tuesday may have seemed an apt metaphor for his campaign. Even before challenger Saxby Chambliss was nominated to oppose him, Cleland had been the target of jibes by Chambliss and a cadre of right-wing radio hosts. Despite having lost three limbs to a grenade in Viet Nam while (Chambliss stayed home with a bad knee), Cleland was portrayed as soft on defense; although he was among the first Democrats to call for the creation of a separate department of Homeland Defense — long before the president conceded such a need existed — Cleland's refusal to accede to Bush Administration demands that the department be exempted from federal merit-system protections allowed Chambliss to paint him as an obstructionist.

Lindsey Graham Takes Over In South Carolina

In South Carolina, voters looked beyond the legend of Strom Thurmond, the U.S. Senator since 1954. Not long after announcing his retirement, the 99-year-old Thurmond named Lindsey Graham as his chosen successor. The endorsement allowed Graham to remain the frontrunner, ahead of Democrat opponent, Alex Sanders. By electing Graham, who rose to national prominence for his high-profile role in the impeachment of President Clinton, South Carolinians on Tuesday kept conservative representation but lose Thurmond's seniority and his status as an icon.

Between them, Sanders and Graham raised about $9 million, spending most of it on negative television ads - which aggravated Hammond and other voters who also have complained about the lack of relevant issues. "I don't know how the candidates for Strom's place stand up," said Sally Hammond, 43, a public relations and marketing specialist with Spartanburg Regional Health Care System. "It's been such a negative campaign that I think the issues have been muddied. The positives got lost in the negatives."

In the end, the race may have boiled down to questions of character and personality - and who was more conservative? Sanders once was known for his humor and populist campaigning in the past, but he seemingly was unable to exercise either one on a large scale in this election.

Arkansas Pick Pryor

One bright spot for Southern Democrats was the ouster of Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas by Democratic State Attorney General Mark Pryor. In Bill Clinton's home state, Bush's coattails were not long enough to overcome the disdain of Hutchinson's religious right conservative base over his decision to divorce his wife and marry a young staff member. And Hutchinson's record — including seven votes against a minimum wage increases as a House member — haunted him as moderates and potential crossover voters identified issues that the senator himself failed to recognize in his campaign.

"The economy. The economy," emphasized voter Krista Miller, 30, outside one polling place. "I voted for Bill Clinton. Then I voted for Bush and things went to hell in a handbasket."

What Now?

With Elizabeth Dole's victory in North Carolina, Jesse Helms may now become a memory — but will he someday be considered a liberal by comparison? It's hard to imagine, but in his home state of North Carolina, voters already say his replacement represents change in southern politics and the South itself. "Hopefully people will look upon North Carolina more humanely regardless of who is in," says Ken Mosher of Pittsboro.

Not everyone saw comfort in the changes. At the Pittsboro Barber Shop, the men who gathered after casting their ballots said they were bothered not only by the loss of clout of influence with Helms' retirement but also by fact that Dole and Bowles seemed to be seeking office selfishly. Pointing to the fact that Dole and Bowles made their political careers away from North Carolina and now were coming back to feast on what Helms leaves them, the voters described both candidates as Washington carpetbaggers, whose campaigns have been orchestrated from afar.

Imagine that. Is nothing made in Dixie anymore? — With reporting by Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville, Anne Berryman, Greg Land, Mike Billips/Atlanta, Constance E. Richards/Spartanburg, Paul Cuadros/Raleigh, Alice Jackson Baughn/Gulf Breeze, Steve Barnes/Little Rock and Frank Sikora/Birmingham