SEN. TRENT LOTT of Mississippi, the assistant...

SEN. TRENT LOTT of Mississippi, the assistant Republican leader in the Senate, was quoted as saying last week that two Southern Democratic senators may switch parties soon -- a la Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

That may or may not turn out to be true, but it is indisputable that the South's Democrats have lost their Senate clout, probably forever.


Conservative Southern Democratic senators used to dominate the upper house of Congress. And not just negatively in terms of defeating civil rights legislation; they chaired almost all the major committees, and could unite as a bloc of 22 votes from their 11 states that presidents had to negotiate with.

The Senate was called "the World's Greatest Deliberative Body" by some, "the South's Revenge for Appomattox" by others.


From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 till 1961, only four Republicans were ever elected to the Senate from the states of the Old Confederacy, and three of those were from Tennessee. (One from North Carolina.) (During Reconstruction 20 of 22 Southern senators were Republicans in one year. Republicans in the Congress and the U.S. Army saw to that.)

Since 1961, 25 Southern Republicans have been elected to the Senate. There was one, from Texas, in 1961. There were six at one time by the late 1970s. In 1981 the number jumped to 10, then 11 in 1983. In 1987 it dropped back to six, after first-termers who were elected in 1980 with the help of Ronald Reagan's coattails couldn't make it on their own in 1986.

In 1993 it was back up to 10 (Bill Clinton having no Southern coat-tails) and is now 14, thanks to wins in 1993 and 1994 plus Shelby's switch.

So even without Lott's predicted switches, Republicans now hold a solid majority of Southern Senate seats. The party will no doubt add to those in 1996's elections. Democratic senators in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana have announced they won't run again. Republicans are likely to win in Alabama and Louisiana and -- who knows? -- maybe even in Arkansas (where half the House delegation is Republican).

Furthermore, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who hasn't adjusted to going from Chairman Nunn of the Armed Services Committee to Ranking Minority Member Nunn has been making noises like a retiree.

It is not inconceivable that Republicans will hold 16-18 Southern Senate seats in 1997 -- and maybe more by the end of the century.

Part -- but only part -- of the reason for this is President Clinton's unpopularity. He carried four states in the region in 1992: Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia. That was three more than the Democratic candidates for president carried in 1988, 1984 and 1980 combined. (One in '80, none in '84 and '88.) But he was a minority winner in all but Arkansas. No analyst I have read or heard gives Clinton any chance to win any Southern state but Arkansas in 1996.