DLC | The New Democrat | November 1, 1998
The Dixie Trifecta

By Ed Kilgore

Bettors could have gotten long odds early this year for a wager on Democrats' winning just one of the three governorships up for election in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. The odds against Democrats sweeping them all were astronomical.

After all, Republicans had carried both Alabama and South Carolina in three straight gubernatorial races and five straight presidential races. Georgia, meanwhile, was the home state of the nation's most prominent Republican elected official, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

GOP incumbent Gov. David Beasley of South Carolina was supposedly a shoo-in. Many observers thought the main threat to Alabama Gov. Fob James would be in the GOP primary. In Georgia, where the governorship was open, Republican Guy Millner, boasting unlimited personal funds and high name recognition from two narrow misses at statewide office in 1994 and 1996, was a heavy favorite to beat whomever emerged battered and bloody from the crowded Democratic primary field.

But on Nov. 4, despite the oddsmakers early assurances, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama, Rep. Jim Hodges of South Carolina, and Rep. Roy Barnes of Georgia had all won by comfortable margins, refuting once again the GOP's perpetual boast that it is on the brink of consolidating its domination of the South. All three governors-elect are moderate-to-conservative Democrats with links to the Democratic Leadership Council. Democrats also solidified their control of all three state legislatures, improving the party's chances in the post-2000 redistricting of federal and state legislative districts.

Post-election analysis of the Dixie Trifecta focused on three factors: Democratic support for (or in the case of Georgia, credit for) a lottery for education; Republican miscues; and an unusually large turnout among African-American voters.

Voters in Alabama and South Carolina envied Georgia Democratic Gov. Zell Miller's remarkably successful lottery, which pays for the nationally renowned HOPE scholarship program, the nation's first statewide voluntary pre-kindergarten system, and computers and physical improvements for public schools. Siegelman and Hodges both promised to create lotteries and dedicate the revenues to education improvements. Barnes definitely benefited from active campaigning by the term-limited Miller, who leaves office with an 85 percent job-approval rating.

These three states also were a microcosm of national GOP miscalculations. Rather than develop clear issue agendas, the Republican gubernatorial candidates relied on appeals to religious conservatives and anachronistic (and sometimes racially tinged) attacks on Democrats as "liberals." Alabama's James alienated his state's business community by obsessively defying judicial restrictions on public religious displays. Georgia's Millner spent millions on television ads that derided Barnes as a "soft on crime" liberal and attacked African-American elected officials. South Carolina's Beasley suffered from a series of flip-flops on issues ranging from the raising of the Confederate flag over the state Capitol to video poker. Millner and Beasley both aped Virginia Republican Gov. James Gilmore's proposal to abolish property taxes on cars, to no great effect.

African-American turnout was well up in all three states from 1994, the last midterm election year. All three Democrats won more than 90 percent of the black vote. But they also took more than 40 percent of the white vote. Those results could portend a revival of the Democratic biracial coalition in the South, with voters supporting centrist candidates who focus on the same broad New Democrat themes of economic growth and education opportunity that helped Democrats win in other regions of the country.

One sign of this coalition's potential durability is that it is no longer a one-way proposition benefiting white candidates. The four Southern African-American congressmen who represent majority-white districts were all re-elected, three by lopsided margins. In Georgia, the same coalition that lifted Barnes to the governorship also elected two centrist African-Americans to statewide office: Attorney General-elect Thurbert Baker (a former legislative floor leader for Miller) and Labor Commissioner- elect Michael Thurmond (who ran Miller's "Work First" welfare reform initiative).

The Dixie Trifecta shows that the New Democrat formula of fiscal responsibility, mainstream values, economic growth, and expanding the economic "winner's circle" through better education and skills training can work in any region of the country.