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Battle for U.S. Senate may be decided in the South

The South is where President Barack Obama and Democrats long have struggled, and it’s where the party’s toughest battleground will be this year in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.

Three incumbents must face the consequences of having voted for Obama’s health care law, but Republicans first must settle primaries in several states, including a challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

All but one of the potentially competitive races is in a state Obama lost in 2012, and the president remains deeply unpopular among whites in the region. Republicans are optimistic they can achieve the six-seat gain needed to retake the Senate.

Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are on the ballot for the first time since voting for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The law’s wobbly start and its image as a power-grab have the incumbents on the defensive, emphasizing local issues and avoiding unnecessary mention of the second-term president who leads their party.

Obama’s Gallup job approval lingers in the low 40s, and is even lower in several states with pivotal Senate races. Republicans want to feed on that and follow the same road map that carried them to a House majority in 2010, Obama’s first midterm election.

“Democrats hope this doesn’t become a national election, but we don’t think that’s the case,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short.

Democrats want the Republican primaries to project divisions and extremism. With Congress more unpopular than the president, they seek to highlight those Republican Senate candidates who are already serving in the House.

In 2012, Democrats defied early predictions and expanded their Senate majority by winning in GOP-leaning Missouri and Indiana, where conservative candidates tripped over their own pronouncements on rape and other issues.

A look at Senate races across the South:

• Arkansas sets up as a proxy for the tussle between the White House and House Republicans. Pryor, whose father served as governor and U.S. senator, is the last remaining Democrat in the state’s Capitol Hill delegation. His Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, is a young conservative favorite.

Cotton and Pryor avoided primaries. Cotton voted with GOP leaders in October to end the partial federal government shutdown, but Democrats say they can paint him as extreme. They’re already pointing to his vote against the new farm bill.

Arkansas voters, who give Obama a 35 percent approval rating, have seen a barrage of ads reminding them that Pryor was “the last vote” on the health care bill.

• In Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, a May primary is almost certain to lead to a runoff.

Three congressmen – Jack Kingston and doctors Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun – each says his record proves his conservative bona fides.

Kingston, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, tells voters what he’s cut in the federal budget.

Gingrey’s slogan is “Repeal or go home,” and he’s banking on his opposition to the president’s health law carrying the day.

Broun, who once declared evolutionary theory “lies straight from the pit of hell,” says his colleagues are poseurs. He tried to prove his conservative credentials by holding a drawing for an AR-15 military style rifle.

Karen Handel, a former secretary of state and commission chairman in Georgia’s most populous county, says she’s got the right experience for the job, and without the blemish of serving in Congress.

Former Dollar General and Reebok CEO David Perdue, the cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, says business experience should trump the lot of “career politicians,” and he’s said he’s willing to finance his own race.

The Democratic favorite is Michelle Nunn, the daughter for former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. Democrats are confident that she can pull in just enough Mitt Romney voters – rural and small-town whites fond of her father, and suburban white women in metropolitan Atlanta – for an upset.

• In Kentucky, McConnell finds himself criticized from the left and right. Wealthy businessman Matt Bevin may be a long shot in the Republican primary, but he’s got enough organization and money to grab attention as he brands McConnell a capitulator to Obama.

Democrats back Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a party financier’s daughter who has gotten campaign advice and help from former President Bill Clinton. Like Nunn in Georgia, Grimes wants to win big among women. Like Bevin, she is going after McConnell as part of the problem in Washington, but she also says McConnell cares more about his national party post than about Kentucky.

McConnell has plenty of money to respond. He’d already spent $10 million by the end of 2013.

• In Louisiana, Landrieu is seeking a fourth term never having topped 52.1 percent of the vote. She won twice in Democratic presidential years. She won in 2002, a midterm year, by running as a centrist who could work with a Republican White House. This time, she has to run with Obama’s negatives – a 40 percent approval rating in Louisiana, according to Gallup – without having him at the top of the ticket to excite Democrats, particularly black voters.

U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy has the backing of national Republican leaders and donors. But he once contributed to Landrieu and, as a state senator, he pushed a proposal similar to Obama’s health insurance exchanges. At least two other Republicans will be on the all-party primary ballot. Unless one primary candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates go to a runoff in December. That second round of voting might be Cassidy’s best shot at winning the Senate seat.

Landrieu defends her health care vote but has clamored for changes to the law. Democrats cite her influence as head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, saying her post is a boon for Louisiana’s oil-and-gas industry and hammering Cassidy as a rubber stamp for House Republicans. Both she and Cassidy champion flood insurance relief for coastal residents.

• Mississippi hasn’t seen Sen. Thad Cochran truly campaign in decades. That’s changing with a challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who boasts endorsements from national conservative and tea party groups. Cochran backers answered with a super political action committee organized by Henry Barbour, the nephew of the former RNC chairman and Gov. Haley Barbour.

McDaniel wants to turn Cochran’s greatest asset – his experience and what it’s meant financially to Mississippi – into a liability by making the incumbent the face of the nation’s $17 trillion debt. The Cochran team attacks McDaniel’s legislative votes supporting bond debt for public projects. The comparison, McDaniel says, is intellectually dishonest. Henry Barbour counters that McDaniel casting Cochran as a “big-government liberal” is just as ludicrous.

Democrats recruited former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers and hope that move positions them for a surprise November victory if McDaniel defeats Cochran.

• North Carolina voters give Obama a 43 percent job approval rating, and some surveys put Hagan’s even lower. It’s tricky enough that she decided not to appear with Obama in January when he spoke at North Carolina State University.

Republicans have a free-for-all primary.

North Carolina’s House speaker, Thom Tillis, who led a conservative resurgence in the Statehouse, is the national Republican favorite, but he must contend with several conservative challengers. If Tillis emerges, Democrats plan to use his legislative agenda – making it harder to vote, cutting public education financing and tightening abortion regulations – against him.

• In West Virginia, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito avoided a bruising GOP primary, enabling her to build an organization and raise money for a race in an increasingly Republican state. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant will try to hold retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s seat for Democrats.

• In Virginia, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner is the most popular politician, and Obama won the commonwealth twice. But in Ed Gillespie, a former national GOP chairman, Republicans found a candidate who can raise the money to compete.

FBI investigating after noose found around University of Miss. statue

The FBI is helping investigate the tying of a noose around the neck of a University of Mississippi statue of James Meredith. In 1962, Meredith became the first black student to enroll in the then all-white southern college.

University police found the noose and a pre-2003 Georgia state flag with the Confederate “stars and bars” on Feb. 16, according to campus police Chief Calvin Sellers.

Two men were seen near the statue early Sunday and investigators were looking at surveillance footage.

“It’s a racial hate crime,” Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson said after a news conference at the state Capitol. “At what level do they get prosecuted? I don’t know. But as long as we tolerate hate, we will continue to revisit history and the past of this state, and at some point we must move forward.”

University chancellor Dan Jones condemned the action, saying it was contrary to the beliefs and values of the school community.

Meanwhile, university police asked for help from the FBI, according to Deborah R. Madden, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Jackson, Miss.

The Ole Miss Alumni Association is offering at $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

When Meredith tried to enter Ole Miss in fall 1962, Mississippi’s governor tried to stop him, which was followed by rioting on the Oxford campus.

U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy then sent 500 U.S. Marshals to take control and a couple weeks later, Meredith was allowed into the school and he eventually graduated with with a degree in political science.

Assistant to the Chancellor for Multicultural Affairs Don Cole reiterated the creed that the university stands by.

“This is particularly painful because the James Meredith statue has become a gathering place for students to discuss many things, including the tenets of our creed, which calls for dignity and respect for all people,” he said.

North Carolina attorney general comes out for gay marriage

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has revealed that he supports same-sex marriage, and he says his personal views won’t prevent him from vigorously defending North Carolina’s constitutional amendment against such marriages in a lawsuit.

When Cooper opposed passage of the May 2012 amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages, which passed by a comfortable margin, he spoke mostly about the lack of clarity in its language, and had never addressed publicly his views on the issue itself.

But when asked over the weekend by The Associated Press in an interview whether he’d like to see the amendment repealed or a law passed to sanction same-sex marriage, Cooper said: “I support marriage equality.”

Cooper is named as a defendant and is the state’s lead designated attorney in a lawsuit filed by several same-sex couples that was recently expanded to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision over the summer.

His announcement worries social conservative groups that supported the amendment’s passage but aren’t sure that Cooper will robustly defend the state in court. They are particularly unhappy with Cooper for agreeing to speak at next month’s annual fundraiser for the gay-rights organization Equality North Carolina. While not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Equality NC lobbies for expanding rights for gays and lesbians.

Cooper’s planned Nov. 9 speech draws “into serious question the intent of the attorney general with respect to the lawsuit,” North Carolina Family Policy Council executive director John Rustin said.

“We believe it is inappropriate for him to participate in that event in that fashion while he is … the lead defense attorney in a case that is attempting to overturn our marriage laws, which is a major goal and agenda of Equality North Caroilna,” Rustin said in an interview.

Cooper, a Democrat who is laying the groundwork for a bid for governor in 2016, told the AP he speaks “with many diverse groups all over North Carolina about issues facing this state, and this is no different.” Equality NC leaders asked him to speak, Cooper added.

Equality NC executive director Chris Sgro was ecstatic hearing of Cooper’s personal support for expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, which is now granted in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

Sgro said Cooper “has long been an advocate for equal rights for all people and we applaud him for publicly aligning” with a “fast-growing majority” of state residents who support legal recognition for gay couples.

Although 61 percent of voters said yes to the constitutional amendment, Sgro dismissed the Family Policy Council as “a small minority” whose opposition to Cooper’s gala appearance will energize Equality NC supporters.

Cooper, now in his 13th year as attorney general, said his office has successfully defended other laws from challenges with which he didn’t necessarily agree. Cooper and other state attorneys last month filed a motion to have a judge dismiss the federal lawsuit, which also seeks to overturn a state law that says same-sex couples cannot be recognized as equal parents of children.

“You’re not going to hear me talk about the legality or constitutionality of any of these statutes that are under litigation. I think it’s important for me not to do that,” Cooper said before addressing a Democratic Party function in Greensboro. “However, I will engage in public policy discussions and I want to do that.”

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders have expressed apprehension about Cooper’s legal role.

The General Assembly passed a law this year giving itself the authority to defend itself in court with its own lawyers, rather than relying on Cooper’s office. And McCrory announced he had hired a private attorney to work with Cooper defending litigation challenging an election overhaul bill that in part requires photo identification to vote in person in 2016.

McCrory general counsel Bob Stephens told reporters two weeks ago that Cooper’s strong personal opposition to the elections law “compromised his ability to represent the state of North Carolina.” Cooper said he can set aside his personal views to carry out his constitutional duties as the state’s top lawyer.

Cooper’s office didn’t object in July to the American Civil Liberties Union and attorneys for six same-sex couples who sued over the adoption law to amend the lawsuit to challenge their prohibition to get married.

In last month’s dismissal motion, state attorneys argued that regulation of marriage and child adoption are traditionally reserved to the states without federal intervention. Same-sex marriage or adoption rights are not fundamental rights, according to the motion.

“The right for a man and a woman to marry is fundamental, the right to other unions, including same-sex marriage, is not,” reads the motion, submitted Sept. 11 on behalf of Cooper by four other state attorneys.