SEN. SAM NUNN'S decision to retire suggests that being a Democrat in the Senate these days is no fun. He was chairman of the Armed Forces Committee for eight years. Now he is just the ranking Democrat. Even a man as well respected as Mr. Nunn for his knowledge of national security issues and his ability to negotiate with and for his peers inevitably plays second fiddle -- at best -- when the other party is in the majority. (After decades of Democratic conservatism holding sway in the Armed Services Committee, the post-Nunn ranking minority member will be Carl Levin of Michigan, who is middle road on defense but otherwise as liberal as fellow committeeman Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Senator Nunn's decision also suggests that it's no fun to be a Democrat in the South either. All four Southern Democratic senators up for re-election next year have now announced retirement. No doubt Senator Nunn could have been re-elected, but he would probably have had to fight for it. He hasn't had to do that since his first race 23 years ago. In his last three campaigns he averaged 87 percent of the vote. With him out, the odds are that the Republican nominee will win in '96. Republicans won 7 of 11 congressional races in the state in 1994, with 57 percent on the votes.
And one Democratic winner has since changed his party allegiance to Republican. That is not so unusual in the South anymore. Since November 1992, 112 elected Democratic officials the South have become Republicans. A political scientist said of this, "It's not brand new, but the magnitude is startling. When ++ you get this kind of shift, it accelerates the trend." So being a loyal Southern Democrat is not only not fun these days, it's dangerous. The Senate after 1996 could have 17 Southern Republicans and only five Southern Democrats. When Senator Nunn ran the first time, the lineup was exactly the opposite.
The big switch is also taking place in the House of Representatives, where Southern Republicans now outnumber Democrats by 67 to 58, and among governors -- seven to four. Just as demoralizing for the Democratic Party is the fact that Republicans are building strength in state legislatures. They control one chamber in Tennessee and South Carolina and could win complete control in Mississippi and Virginia next month. It appears the party's once discredited top-down party building is working.