Next year, voters across the South will decide several key races that will determine if the area remains staunch GOP turf or begins to swing a little more to the middle.
Hundreds of congressional and Statehouse races will play out from Arkansas to Virginia, and they together will paint a picture of how the region continues to change.
Political science professors Gibbs Knotts of the College of Charleston and Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, recently came up with five of the biggest storylines heading into the coming year.
These races won’t begin to heat up for many more months — and won’t be decided until November 2014 —but here is what to keep an eye on.
1. Can the South’s Democratic senators hold on?
Incumbent Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina are all Southern Democrats up for re-election in fall 2014, and none are a sure thing.
Knotts said all three have an edge as incumbents, “but very few statewide Democrats remain in the South.”
Sabato’s Center for Politics currently rates all of these races as “toss-ups.”
“Fourteen months out, it looks like Mark Pryor is the most endangered, followed by Mary Landrieu, followed by Kay Hagan,” he said. “This order may change. All three may win since incumbency helps, but if a GOP wave develops in (President) Obama’s sixth-year-itch year, all three could lose. Who knows? It is reasonable to call them vulnerable at this point, but not to go further.”
2. Will Georgia political royalty help Democrats recapture a U.S. Senate seat there?
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, and the daughter of one of his legendary predecessors, Sen. Sam Nunn, could make the race to fill his seat more interesting.
Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive, has announced she is running for the Democratic nomination, and Knotts said recent demographic shifts, including a rise in Hispanic Georgia voters, could help her compete (assuming she wins the nomination).
Sabato said a necessary precondition to a Nunn victory is the Republicans nominating a very weak candidate. “There are a couple who qualify,” he added. “But if one of the stronger nominees emerges, Nunn will probably lose. It’s a big GOP field; let’s see how it shakes out. Georgia is gradually becoming more Democratic, but by no means are they Blue yet.”
3. Will there be a backlash against the conservative state Legislature in North Carolina?
Republicans recently gained veto-proof control of this state’s House and Senate, and they have a Republican governor as well. It’s the first time the party has held such control of this state since Reconstruction, and they have made an impression.
The state has overhauled its election system, placed new restrictions on abortion, cut personal and corporate income taxes, changed gun laws, cut unemployment insurance benefits, and opted out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.
Knotts noted the Tar Heel State went for Obama in 2008, and voters there might give Republicans a backlash —or a pat on the back.
“(Sen.) Kay Hagan will be a good test,” Sabato added. “Her opponent may very well come from the state Legislature.”
4. Who will win the Virginia governor’s race?
Knotts said Virginia is one of the South’s most competitive states, so this race is one to watch.
Sabato, who lives in Virginia, said Democrat Terry McAuliffe is leading, “or should I say, Ken Cuccinelli is losing because he is seen as too far right. There’s a split in the GOP, too, and the remaining moderates appear to be abandoning Cuccinelli.”
Still, he noted both candidates have very high unfavorable ratings. “There is great angst here about a subpar choice, with each tarred by scandal,” Sabato added. “The two are running against the only candidate they could beat.”
5. How will tea party governors fare as they seek re-election?
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Rick Scott were swept into office three years ago during the height of the tea party movement.
And both could face strong challengers as they seek to hold onto their seats next year. Haley is expected to face Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, who ran a close second to her in 2010 and who may be the only Democrat in the race.
In Florida, things could be even more interesting, as Scott could face a challenge from his predecessor, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.
“It’s hard to see how a Republican loses in South Carolina,” Sabato said. “Florida will be the state to watch. Scott versus Crist would be fascinating — two governors in a shootout.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.