The Great Southern Democratic Hope

Jaime Harrison speaks during a DNC forum in Baltimore, Md., February 11, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Beto was a pretender, Jaime Harrison is a contender.

Back in 2018, I wrote about the phenomenon of Great Southern Democratic Hopes — candidates with not-so-great chances of success running in a Republican-learning state who receive wildly optimistic coverage from national media organizations and reporters desperate to discover a Democrat who can win statewide races in the South and someday end up on a presidential ticket.

Prime past specimens of the Great Southern Democratic Hopes include Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, and Michelle Nunn and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. But 2018 brought the modern king of the Great Southern Democratic Hopes, Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.

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You notice none of those candidates actually won, although O’Rourke deserves some credit for performing better than any other Democrat in decades. Still, next spring, Ted Cruz will be in the third year of his second term, and O’Rourke, having completed a presidential bid that also didn’t live up to the initial hype, will be teaching at Texas State University.

Ironically, less-hyped Southern Democrats have won statewide races in recent cycles, such as North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and Louisiana governor Jon Bel Edwards. (The national media cannot hype Edwards for the national stage because he’s a rare genuine pro-life Democrat.) Doug Jones won his Senate race in Alabama, though his election appears likely to be a fluke that was set up by the GOP’s nomination of Roy Moore.

Heading into this cycle, Kentucky Senate candidate Amy McGrath was an early contender for the title of the 2020 Great Southern Democratic Hope. Democrats convinced themselves that Mitch McConnell was deeply unpopular and represented all that people didn’t like about Washington.

“Mitch McConnell is a transcendent figure in American politics; he is a unifier. He unites everyone in hatred and animosity toward him, including Republicans,” Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster at Global Strategy Group, told the Huffington Post in July last year. “He’s a walking, talking definition of what people hate about Washington and the corrupt political system today.”

Except . . . frustration with Washington or McConnell doesn’t automatically translate to a desire to vote for a Democratic replacement. And as with other Great Southern Democratic Hopes, Amy McGrath’s skills on the campaign trail appear to have been overhyped. She faced a surprisingly tough primary challenge from state legislator Charles Booker.

But after McGrath won the primary, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin declared, “Democrats serious about winning chose Amy McGrath.” The Frankfort State Journal concluded, “McGrath has the name recognition and financial backing to give McConnell, well, a run for his money.” Fueled by Democrats across the country who are itching to see McConnell defeated, McGrath’s fundraising has been off the charts — $37 million in the last quarter, more than $82 million overall.

And yet it is mid October, and McConnell does not appear to be running for his money. The newest Mason-Dixon poll puts the Republican ahead, 51 percent to 42 percent. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gives McConnell a 96 percent chance of winning. In a year when Democrats are finding themselves in surprisingly strong shape from Maine to Colorado and from Montana to Arizona, McGrath is an afterthought and on pace to turn out like the last Democrat who took on McConnell. In 2013, Politico wrote of Grimes, “The fresh Democratic face could give the Senate minority leader the fight of his political life.” Mitch McConnell won reelection in 2014, 56 percent to 40 percent, in what was not the fight of his political life.

Ironically, a Democratic candidate with much less early hype, South Carolina Senate candidate Jaime Harrison, has a much stronger claim on the title of the Great Southern Democratic Hope of 2020. The last three Quinnipiac polls show Harrison tied with Graham, and Harrison is awash in so much money, he makes Amy McGrath look cash-strapped. Harrison raised $57 million from July through September, the highest quarterly fund-raising total for any Senate candidate in U.S. history. O’Rourke set the previous record, with $38 million.

A recent Siena poll threw a little cold water on the Harrison excitement, putting Graham ahead, 46 percent to 40 percent. And Trump is still heavily favored to win the state and relatively popular, so Graham could always hold a rally with Trump if he and his campaign were genuinely worried about losing. But Harrison has probably already reached the O’Rourke threshold — forcing a GOP senator in a state perceived as deep red to work his tail off to avoid defeat, as well as energizing the state party and enabling down-ticket wins. And who knows? If a Democrat can win in Alabama, a Democrat can win in South Carolina.

But if Harrison generates another O’Rourke-style result — impressive, but not quite enough, even while spending way more than the incumbent — it will be another case where a Great Southern Democratic Hope was fueled by the enthusiasm and donations of Democrats outside the state. Democrats across the country loathe Ted Cruz, detest Mitch McConnell, and seethe at Lindsey Graham. But that’s not what wins a Senate race. The objective is not to excite grassroots donors in New York and California, it is to persuade generally conservative-learning independent voters in Texas, Kentucky, and South Carolina. And until that happens, the Great Southern Democratic Hopes will remain illusory.

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