The New Dixieland Democrats

Democrat Heath Shuler gives a thumbs up to supporters after winning the 11th Congressional District of North Carolina in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006. Shuler defeated incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor.
When Democrat Heath Shuler took the stage to claim victory on election night, he began his speech by saying, "I want to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ."

The crowd — even Asheville's granola-crunching environmentalists and liberal activists — went wild.

On the day when Democrats posted their biggest gains in the House since 1974's post-Watergate election, Shuler was one of only two congressional Democratic candidates in 10 Southern states able to tap the nation's discontent with President George W. Bush and his party to beat a Republican incumbent.

Many view that success — built in part on Shuler's socially conservative views, which would make him a Republican in most other parts of the country — as a way forward for the party in a region largely locked up by the Republican for decades.

"I think Shuler is the kind of exemplar of a conservative Democrat who can win in more traditionally Republican areas," said Vanderbilt University political scientist Christian Grose. "On issues, he's taken at least some conservative positions. Voters will say: 'He's not lockstep. He's not a traditional national Democrat.'"

Neither is Jim Webb, the former Republican and Reagan appointee who beat Republican Senator George Allen in Virginia. Webb is one of only four Democrats among the 20 senators from Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.

For the first time since the 1950s, the majority party in the House will be the minority party in the South.

Shuler's campaign mixed economic populism and strong environmental stances with moderate positions on social issues that often hurt Democrats in the South. He opposes abortion but supports stem-cell research. He supports gun rights. He talks openly of his Christian faith and bringing "mountain values" to Washington.

He won even though the South was far more receptive to Republicans. Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the networks found a majority favored Republican candidates in the South, breaking 52-45 percent for the Republican.

Just over half in the South, 51 percent, approved of Bush's job performance, and about the same number were either enthusiastic about or satisfied with the Republican leaders in Congress.

White men and white women in the South strongly supported Republican candidates. More than a third of Southern voters — 35 percent — said they were white evangelicals, and they backed the Republican Party by a margin of almost 3-to-1.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.