By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
Washington-- For decades, Republicans have been unrelenting in taking congressional seats away from Democrats in the South.
And in 2014, three of the six Senate seats in the South still in Democratic hands in North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana will be on the line, political analysts say, with all signs suggesting those incumbents will be buffeted by significant political headwinds.
Opinions differ, though, about which of the three races could be the most telling about Democrats' chances of stopping and possibly reversing Republican momentum at the congressional level in the region. In Arkansas, Mark Pryor, 50, son of legendary former Arkansas governor and senator David Pryor, will be aiming for a third term.
In North Carolina, Kay Hagan, 59, a lawyer, banker, exercise addict and former ballet-dancer-turned-politician, will be shooting for a second. And in Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, 57, part of a politically noteworthy family in that state, will vie for a fourth. While much will depend on the quality of the opponents Republicans recruit to run against them, all three know the GOP in recent elections has been making significant gains at all levels in their states and across the South.
Further, analysts say, they also know how unpopular President Barack Obama is among the majority of their constituents. That's especially the case in Arkansas, where Mitt Romney bested the president by 24 points last year, improving over Republican nominee John McCain's 20-point margin in 2008. Republicans also added a significant trophy in Arkansas when they unseated two-term incumbent Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010. Former GOP Rep. John Boozman won the seat. Already there is talk about Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, a freshman congressman representing South Arkansas and tabbed by some as a "rising star," challenging Pryor next year. Cotton has been noncommittal so far, although some early polls suggest he might have a legitimate chance.
Against this GOP tide, some say, are some factors in Pryor's favor, including his family name and an aggressive start to his fund-raising, that brought in $1.92 million in the first quarter of this year and boosted his cash on hand to $3.41 million.
He is also viewed as having a conservative voting record on social issues, even though voting statistics put all three firmly in the centrist camp. For 2012 votes, the public policy magazine National Journal ranked Pryor as the 49th most conservative member of the Senate, with Hagan as the 52nd most conservative and Landrieu as the 47th.
Congressional Quarterly, meanwhile, found Hagan voting in support of Obama's positions 96 percent of the time last year, compared to 91 percent for Pryor and 90 percent for Landrieu.
Pryor further buttressed his centrist-conservative credentials by opposing the recent bipartisan Senate bill calling for expanded background checks on gun purchases. "If a Democrat with a voting record like that can't hang on, then that's the last of an endangered species," University of Arkansas political scientist Janine Parry says of Pryor. A Pryor loss, she said, "would seal the deal for Republicans in Arkansas." Indeed, some analysts are far from ready to predict a Pryor loss.
Because of his conservative Democratic image, "Pryor is probably the best bet (of the three) to get re-elected," said Hastings Wyman, founding editor of The Southern Political Report.
And the recent swipes at Pryor by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the gun control-advocacy group backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, can only help him in Arkansas, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for The Cook Political Report.
Pryor can say, "'See, I opposed Obama (on guns)," Duffy said.
One disadvantage for Pryor, however, could be the pass Republicans gave him in 2008, when they failed to nominate a candidate to oppose him. Duffy said Pryor's campaign skills could show some rust as a result. "He hasn't faced voters in 12 years," she said, adding he is likely "facing a more difficult race than he has ever had."
Meanwhile, Wyman said, a troubling sign for Hagan was Republicans taking control of the North Carolina Legislature in 2010. Republicans have also continued to make gains in Louisiana since Landrieu's last re-election, he added "Both are in very difficult situations," Wyman said. But while Pryor pleased many of his constituents by opposing the recent bill on gun background checks, Landrieu and Hagan supported it. "I think she (Hagan) is a very courageous lawmaker," Wyman said, noting also her recent support for gay marriage. Ferrel Guillory, political analyst at the University of North Carolina, said Hagan could benefit if Republicans have a divisive primary fight to pick her opponent. "She's a tenacious campaigner," Guillory said.
But it should be a warning to Hagan, he added, that North Carolina has a well-established tradition of letting many of its senators serve only one term. Elizabeth Dole, the Republican incumbent Hagan beat in 2008, is one of the latest examples.
Meanwhile, while political trends in Louisiana may not favor Landrieu, she has proven her mettle in past re-election races,
Said Duffy, "She's had these narrow elections in the past and has done pretty well."