WASHINGTON — DEMOCRATS, stunned by last November's electoral losses, are now facing a new bit of bad political news: Their chance of winning back the Senate in 1996 is dwindling from slim to slimmer.
The reason is retirements. Two weeks ago, Sen. David Pryor (D) of Arkansas announced that he would not run in '96, bringing the number of retiring Senate Democrats to five. Gleeful Republican officials claim they can pick up at least three of these seats, bolstering their current 54 to 46 Senate majority.
In particular, the GOP is aiming to win a ''Deep South Senate Trifecta'' in Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. It's far from a forgone conclusion that Republicans can pull this triple win off, but if they can, it would be further evidence of historic party realignment in the Sun Belt. Arkansas and Louisiana haven't elected Republican senators since Reconstruction.
''I don't think Democrats are without hope in the South, but Senate retirements have certainly made the hill a little steeper,'' says Democratic pollster Alan Secrest in Washington.
Besides Senator Pryor, the Southern Democrats who have so far announced that they are leaving the Senate are J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Howell Heflin of Alabama.
Democrats Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and Sen. Jim Exon of Nebraska are also retiring, as is a lone Senate Republican -- Hank Brown of Colorado.
Not that long ago, the idea that a departing Democratic senator from the South wouldn't be automatically replaced by another Democrat would have seemed a departure from natural law. Southern Democrats such as John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard Russell of Georgia bestrode the Senate like colossi in suits, easily winning election after election in a region solid for their party.
Even after the South began a trend of voting GOP for president, Democrats continued to count on Southern voters to maintain a Senate majority. As recently as 1986 the South voted in five Democratic freshmen senators, ending the brief Reagan interregnum of GOP Senate control.
But now the era of the legendary Dixiecrats appears to have ended. Democrats just can't seem to hold onto their Southern Senate seats. Over the last eight election cycles only one Southern Democrat -- John Breaux of Louisiana -- has managed to directly succeed another. (Senator Breaux won the seat of longtime Senate baron Russell Long, in 1986.)
In 1996, the key to a ''Deep South Trifecta,'' for Republicans, will be finding strong candidates. That's something they haven't always managed in the past. President Clinton's popularity ratings will also have to stay relatively low in his native region.
''I think the Republicans have a very good shot at these seats,'' notes Hastings Wyman Jr., editor of the newsletter Southern Political Report.
The '96 vote is still a long way away, of course. But so far, the Trifecta is shaping up like this:
* Arkansas: Senator Pryor remains extremely popular in Arkansas, and his retirement for personal reasons turns a safe Democratic seat into a tossup. The most mentioned potential Republican candidate, so far, is Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee.
''He's very good on TV,'' says Cal Ledbetter, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. ''He's run three statewide campaigns so far, and he would have lots and lots of money'' from Republicans eager to deal the president a setback in his home state.
Mr. Clinton remains popular in his home state of Arkansas, however, and this could spell trouble for the GOP. A leading contender for the Democratic nomination might be former White House chief of staff Thomas ''Mack'' McLarty, who has talked often of running for the Senate and would benefit from his association with Clinton.
*Alabama: Retiring Senator Heflin (D) would have faced a tough reelection bid in a state that now has a Republican governor and a senator, Richard Shelby, who recently switched from the Democrats to the GOP.
''If the Democrats nominate somebody as conservative as Heflin was, they have a chance to hang on to the seat,'' says Bradley Moody, a political science professor from the University of Auburn inMontgomery. If not, he adds, they will have a difficult time with any one of a slate of potential GOP candidates that includes two congressmen, the state attorney general, and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr.
*Louisiana: Like Senator Heflin, Senator Johnston might have lost a '96 race. He bowed out instead. Former Rep. Clyde Holloway is one possible GOP candidate for the now-open seat -- as is David Duke, the far right former gubernatorial and presidential candidate.Democrats may yet recover, focus on the Southern Trifecta, and keep the seats on their side of the political ledger. Republicans have fumbled advantages in the South before. ''Republican gains haven't been a tidal wave that has swept over the South,'' notes Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden. ''They've been slow -- two steps forward, one step back.'' The GOP weakness remains a lack of grass-roots organization and lower-level officials to get out the vote and promote higher level candidates. ''You can get all the Republican sheriffs in Georgia into my men's room,'' he notes.
Turnout in 1996 may also be on the Democrats' side. Traditionally, Democrats benefit when large numbers of voters go to the polls, and presidential-year elections often feature high turnout. The so-called ''motor-voter'' registration bill has also made registering to vote much easier in most states. Sign-ups have been particularly strong among low-income voters in some Southern states, but early research shows some gains by Republicans.