Fight for South Pivots On Key Senate Races

GOP sees an opportunity as four Democrats retire

Southern Democratic senators, who used to be as much kings of their domain as King Cotton, saw their numbers decline in the last few years as the Republican tide swept through the region. Now the outcome of four closely watched races will determine if they become an even more endangered species after November.

Most of the contests - for the seats of retiring senior Democrats - are too close to call. For Democrats, the stakes are high. Republicans could win three and possibly four of these seats, but even if they win just two, Democrats will lose any chance of regaining the Senate control they lost in 1994. And even if Democrats do well, the departure of four veteran incumbents at a time when the GOP is surging in the South signals a continuing and fundamental shift in the dynamic of Southern politics.

"You don't just go out and plant the seed and automatically have a Sam Nunn or a Howell Heflin," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. "You're losing a mature crop, and it's going to be a while before you plant and harvest another one, even if you had the seeds."

The four Southern Democratic senators include David Pryor of Arkansas and Howell Heflin of Alabama, who are retiring after three terms, and Sam Nunn of Georgia and J. Bennett Johnson of Louisiana, both leaving after four terms.

At this point, the races could go either way, pundits say. The best chances for Republicans may be in Alabama, where Republican Jeff Sessions and Democrat Roger Bedford both oppose legal abortions, gun control, and gay rights. Louisiana, which has not elected a Republican senator this century, is leaning toward GOP candidate Woody Jenkins, who is challenging Mary Landrieu. Arkansas is a toss-up, though polls show a two-point edge for Democrat Winston Bryant, and analysts say he may benefit from riding on President Clinton's coattails.

The only race where Democrats appear to have the advantage is in Georgia. Here, most polls show former secretary of state Max Cleland comfortably ahead of Republican Guy Millner, a wealthy businessman.

Political watchers say the outcomes are important. Currently Republicans hold a 53 to 47 seat advantage in the Senate. In the 11 states of the South, Senate Republicans outnumber Democrats by 13 to 9.

"If Republicans won two of these four in the South they'd go up to 15 to 7; they would have an eight-seat surplus," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "That would be very hard to overcome in the rest of the country, so a one or two seat gain (here) would really help them maintain control of the Senate."

Six Republican senators from the South are also up for reelection. Four of the seats are considered safe; the other two are tighter races. North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms is ahead of Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt, but Mr. Helms's contests are usually always close. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond is likely to be reelected, but his age and physical condition are issues.

In the contests for the Democratic seats, analysts caution that Republicans can close in quickly. That happened in 1994 in Georgia, when Mr. Millner challenged Democratic Gov. Zell Miller and got 49 percent of the vote, a figure that exceeded any of his polls. "If you're looking at polls even at the end of October and they show Democrats have a lead of six, eight points, that can be wiped out on election day," Mr. Bullock says.

Moreover, the key for Democrats to win in the South may depend on the black vote. "White voters are going to go predominantly for the Republicans," Bullock says. "The way a Democrat wins is to ... try to get 40 percent of the white vote and hope for a solid black turnout. In Georgia there'd be some reasons for blacks to turn out - Cynthia McKinney and Sanford Bishop - but I'm not sure in other states you have as high a profile black/white contest that would bring out black voters."

Some say Democrats have the best chance to fill Senator Nunn's seat in Georgia because of the candidates involved. Mr. Cleland, a war hero, has been a popular Democratic officeholder and is positioning himself as a centrist Democrat. Millner, whose political views are conservative, beat a more moderate Republican in the primary, who may have presented more of a challenge.

Others say Democrats may have an advantage in Georgia because the party still has a stronger hold there than in other Southern states.

"In a lot of these states the Republicans have gradually done well enough that they've cut the muscle of the Democrats' organization - they have taken over courthouses, legislatures here and there, so the guy who's going to vote Democratic because his brother-in-law is the clerk of court might be voting Republican for that reason now," says Hastings Wyman, publisher of Southern Political Report. "The Republican movement in Georgia hasn't come as far."

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