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Conservatives struggle to maintain clout in Democratic Party

GOP dominance, liberal leadership hurting mavericks

WASHINGTON -- In consecutive days last month, Alabama lost two legends from a disappearing movement -- Southern Democrats who were powerful in Washington because of their party's majority and powerful back home because of their tendency to buck it.

Look around Congress these days and you'll find few conservative Democrats in the mold of the late Senator Howell Heflin or Representative Tom Bevill. Those who remain are almost as likely to represent the Midwest or Great Plains as the once-solid South.

According to Congressional Observer Publications, only one current House member voted against his party at least a third of the time last year, Democratic Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota. In 1998, there were 13 in that category, including eight Southerners, and three of them opposed Democratic leaders more than half the time.

Virtually all those maverick-more-than-not lawmakers have either joined the Republican Party or retired. Most dramatic of all was retired Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, a Democrat who was the keynote speaker at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Miller voted with President Bush's party a staggering 94 percent of the time last year.

Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist, says more than 80 percent of white conservatives in the South now belong to the Republican Party, and only 10 percent are Democrats.

Unlike in the past, when seniority alone dictated leadership positions for the party, Black says parties now handpick their committee leaders. For Democrats, he said, that means the rewards tend to go more often to liberals.

Remaining Southern Democrats with conservative voting records would argue that the movement made famous by Heflin and Bevill and resurrected by Miller is alive and well. But even they acknowledge times are different.

For one thing, Republicans have ruled the chamber for more than a decade. Thus, some conservative Democrats in search of majority clout have found it through switching parties. Of the 15 congressional Democrats who became Republicans in the last 25 years, 13 of them are from the South.

Others scoff at that idea.

''I'd rather be in the minority the rest of my life than sell my convictions down the river," said Representative Mike Ross, Democrat of Arkansas.

''Sometimes I don't think my leadership gets it," said Representative Bud Cramer, Democrat of Alabama. ''If they're to really stand the chance to take the House back, they've got to leave those members plenty of room to vote where their district is coming from rather than where the national party is coming from."

Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a former Democrat, has encouraged Cramer for years to follow in his footsteps. Cramer says he's not uncomfortable enough with his party right now to take that leap.

Arkansas provides Democrats a model for broadening their Southern base. In 2000, the state's six-member congressional delegation was split -- three Republicans and three Democrats. But Ross and Senator Mark Pryor upset Republican incumbents, giving Arkansas Democrats their current 5-1 majority.

Arkansas and West Virginia are now the only Southern states where congressional delegations aren't dominated by Republicans.

Now in their ninth terms, representatives Gene Taylor of Mississippi and John Tanner of Tennessee are two of the longest-serving conservative Democrats from the South. By the numbers, however, their voting records seem to be trending less conservative. Taylor bucked his party about 32 percent of the time last year, compared with 53 percent in 1998.

Tanner says the change in his voting record, less dramatic than Taylor's, is because Democrats have heeded the wisdom of successful Southerners and moved to the right, particularly on financial matters.

''The party has shifted -- I haven't," Tanner said. ''You have liberals now talking about balancing the budget. They're not doing it for the same reasons I am, but the vote looks the same on paper."

Still, many Southern Democrats complain their party hurts its chances in the South by choosing liberal national leaders, such as Nancy Pelosi of California.

Representative Harold Ford of Tennessee, a conservative Democrat who challenged Pelosi for the party's top House job in 2002, says the problem is not the leadership, but the failure of Southern Democrats to demonstrate that they're not always in lockstep with those leaders.

''The national image of the Democratic Party does not sell well in the South," Ford said. ''However, the position of national Democrats on fiscal matters, ironically, is more in line with where voters are. We have to do a better job of telling that story."

In some states, Republicans have reduced the comfort level for conservative Democrats by redrawing their districts. Eight from Texas resigned, switched parties, or lost their seats last year because of redistricting, and Georgia's Republican Legislature is pushing the same process now with hopes of adding to the party's 7-6 advantage in the House.

Representative Jim Marshall, a moderate Democrat who represents a middle Georgia district that could be affected, is confident he can retain his seat. The losers, he says, are voters, because districts once considered toss-ups are being redrawn to lean heavily toward one party or the other.

As a result, the South is arguably no more likely to elect a Democrat to Congress from a Republican-leaning district than anywhere else. Signs of that are found in the Blue Dog Coalition, a fiscally conservative group of House Democrats. Of its 35 current members, fewer than half are from the South.

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