Call it the "Obama effect." It could give Republican candidates a run for their money, even in the reddest states.
The senator's campaign announced Friday a 50-state "Vote for Change" registration drive aimed at boosting turnout for Democratic candidates in November. But Obama's grass-roots juggernaut is already rippling through early-primary states, helping local Democratic candidates raise money and identify new voters. In South Carolina, for example, a record-shattering 530,000 Democrats voted in the Jan. 26 primary, topping Republican turnout in this GOP stronghold by 85,000. Obama beat Clinton in South Carolina 2 to 1. But both candidates, along with former senator John Edwards, drew out droves of new Democrats, and after Election Day turned over about 80,000 new e-mail addresses to the state party, which added them to the Democratic National Committee voter file.
One beneficiary is Anton Gunn, Obama's South Carolina political director (and a former Gamecocks offensive lineman), who announced his candidacy for a seat in the state House on Feb. 4. Gunn narrowly lost a 2006 bid for the District 79 seat, but the Republican incumbent, Bill Cotty, is retiring. This time, given the influx of new residents to the area and the strong Democratic primary turnout, Gunn "has a really good chance of winning," said Joe Warner, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Democratic candidates for House seats in Districts 1 and 2 also have more funding for their campaigns and are reaching more people, thanks to the expanded DNC file. "We feel like we're very competitive in those seats," Warner said. "That voter file, it's so easy to use it's giving our county parties, our precinct presidents, access to information that they've never had before."
As a sign of potential gains to come, Warner pointed to the special House election on Tuesday in Mississippi to pick a successor for Rep. Roger Wicker, who was appointed in January to Trent Lott's Senate seat. Democrat Travis Childers nearly won the deep-red Wicker seat outright but fell just short of the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff against GOP candidate Greg Davis. The two will meet again on May 13.