In Tuesday’s off-year elections, Democrats continued to gather steam in Virginia and Kentucky–making it even more obvious that these two Southern states are up for grabs in 2008.

Kentucky’s Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher, hand-picked for the job by US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2003, did not merely lose his re-election bid to Democrat Steve Beshear–he got pummeled, obliterated and all-around embarrassed by a “has-been” candidate who’d dropped out of politics a decade ago after losing races for governor and Senate. Beshear won almost 60 percent of the vote. Much of Fletcher’s trouble was Fletcher himself–he ran in 2003 on a promise to “clean up the mess in Frankfurt,” where good-ol’-boy Democrats had long been in charge. Soon enough, though, Fletcher-the-reformer was being brought up on criminal charges for his state hiring practices–and when he struck a deal with prosecutors to drop the charges, he proceeded to pardon everyone in his administration who’d allegedly broken the law.

But this wasn’t just about Fletcher–it was also about a rising Democratic tide in Kentucky that became apparent in 2006, when liberal John Yarmuth unseated one of George W. Bush’s favorite members of Congress, Anne Northup. A strong antiwar movement in the state, along with a vibrant progressive blogosphere (see, has helped revitalize the party with a more progressive tilt. Now polls are showing that McConnell, who built the Republican machine in Kentucky that’s now falling apart, could be in real peril when he runs for re-election next year. His water-carrying for the President, especially on Iraq and immigration, have taken his approval ratings to all-time lows.

Dethroning McConnell, probably the most powerful and certainly the wiliest Republican leader in Congress, would be a savage blow to the GOP. Democrats have a handful of promising candidates, including populist firebrand Greg Stumbo, the attorney general who went after Fletcher; Congressman Ben Chandler; and Iraq War veteran-turned-antiwar activist Lt. Col. Andrew Horne. In a state that Bill Clinton carried twice, the grass is turning blue again.

In Virginia, which has been trending blue since 2001, the news was less dramatic but still important: Democrats won a new majority in the state Senate (though Republicans still control the House of Delegates), putting some legislative oomph behind popular Democratic Governor Tim Kaine for his last two years in office. Besides Kaine, former governor and ’08 Senate candidate Mark Warner and Senator Jim Webb also campaigned hard for the swing seats–and won key races not only in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia but in the “purple” coastal areas of the state, where Democrats would have to score big to win a presidential contest in 2008. (Warner, one of the most popular politicians in state history, is virtually a shoo-in to win the Senate– if he doesn’t end up with a vice-presidential nod.)

The off-year election news from Dixie was not all happy (surprise!). In Mississippi, Republican Governor Haley Barbour–formerly known as the king of Republican lobbyists in Washington–won by a margin as big as Beshear’s over evangelical Democrat John Arthur Eaves. Eaves, who faced miles-long odds against Barbour’s ruthless and rich Mississippi machine, had tried to “out-Christian” the Republican, spouting Bible verses with the same ludicrous frequency as Harold Ford Jr. in his “nearer God to Thee” Senate race in Tennessee last year. It don’t work. Not even in Mississippi. And not even if–in Eaves’s case–you’re sincere about it.