South now politically competitive

ONE swallow doesn't make a summer, and one special congressional election doesn't set a political trend -- not even when it takes place in Texas. The national Republican Party put a lot of money and effort into the First Congressional District race in northeast Texas and came up short by just under two percentage points. If GOP candidate Edd Hargett had won by that margin, Republican spokesmen doubtless would have interpreted it as evidence of a continuing swing toward their party across the South.

Considering the all-out GOP effort, Democrats understandably are claiming more than just a close win in a rural Southern district that has never voted Republican. But the contention of some that Democrat Jim Chapman's victory is evidence that no realignment of Southern voting trends is taking place misses the mark. Political change is occurring in the South. Despite the tenacity of the region's political traditions, Republicans are increasingly able to challenge Democrats seriously, and often defeat the m, for US House and Senate seats and governorships.

Historically, this is a major event. Twelve of the 24 US senators from Southern states are Republicans; that's a political reality that might not have seemed possible two decades ago.

Only two of the 12 states (North Carolina and Tennessee) have Republican governors now, but it is no longer unusual for Southern states to elect GOP governors. Forty-one of the region's 127 congressmen are Republicans; that's only about one-third -- but the Republicans can understandably call it progress for the party.

What's happening? Several things: Southerners, those who run for office and those who vote, are simply outliving the political legacies of the Civil War and the depression -- both of which benefited the Democratic Party. The South has changed demographically and economically; many Southerners were Northerners not long ago, having migrated to take advantage of job opportunities in new industries. Conservatives who have been Democrats for years find themselves voting for conservatives running under the Re publican label -- simply because those candidates are more attractive in a given election.

In other words, the South is a politically competitive area now on more than the presidential level.

Saturday's election in East Texas pitted two conservatives against each other. The Democrat eked out a victory, apparently because he chose the most effective positions to campaign on: loss of steel plant jobs in the district because of foreign imports; concern about social security in a poor district with many older voters; firm opposition to abortion and gun control.

Democratic US Rep. Sam B. Hall Jr., who vacated the seat because he was appointed to a US district judgeship by a Republican President, was decidedly conservative: In 1984 he got a zero rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, a 100 rating from the right-wing American Conservative Union.

Lessons to be drawn from the Texas First District? For Republicans, perhaps, that the appeal at the district level has to be more local; more than money, support by outside political ``stars'' and an outwardly attractive candidate (Mr. Hargett is a former Texas A&M football star) are needed.

As for Southern Democrats, it should be evident to them by now that they are going to face tougher GOP opposition up and down the political line.

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