WASHINGTON—African-American voters could decide whether Democrats or Republicans win control of the House of Representatives or the Senate on Nov. 7, and Democrats are working overtime to ensure that they turn out to vote.
But that may be harder this year than it traditionally has been, for several reasons.
African-Americans are less loyal to the Democratic Party than in previous decades. Many are disillusioned with voting after feeling shut out in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. And the Republican Party is working aggressively to attract more African-American voters.
So Democrats are pulling out the stops in their courtship of this longtime solid, faithful voting group.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., for example, is a former president of the Congressional Black Caucus. He's campaigning for his own re-election, and he's helping Maryland Democratic Senate candidate Ben Cardin—who's white—compete for African-American votes in Cardin's race against Republican Michael Steele—who's African-American.
This weekend, Cummings is leading a get-out-the-black-vote bus tour through Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio.
"If we have a situation where Mr. Steele were to win, the Republicans would treat it as a major victory for them with the African-American vote and spin it to the high heavens," Cummings said. "We realize we have to work hard to capture every vote."
In Maryland, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1, and 30 percent of the population is African-American. Ads on African-American radio stations there featuring Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, and basketball legend Magic Johnson urge voters to choose Cardin over Steele.
In Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb, who's looking to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen, recently won the endorsement of Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, who became the nation's first African-American governor in 1989.
Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have been crisscrossing the country, lending their star power to Democratic candidates as they woo African-American voters.
"In the races that are the most competitive, groups that traditionally mobilize black voters are going to put much more in the way of resources than they have in the past into those races," said David Bositis, chief political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research center in Washington that specializes in African-American issues. "I think in Virginia, Missouri, in Maryland, in Ohio, in Tennessee, Democrats are going to go all out in turning out the black vote."
Why such a big push now?
For one thing, Democrats must overcome the abandonment of the party by a growing number of African-Americans.
A 2004 Joint Center study found that 63 percent of African-Americans considered themselves Democrats, about the same level as in 2002, but down from 74 percent in 2000.
The survey found slippage especially among older African-Americans. In 2002, African-Americans ages 51 to 64 split 70 percent Democratic to 5 percent Republican. Two years later, 55 percent identified themselves as Democrats, while 15 percent considered themselves Republicans. The rest were independents.
Sensing an opportunity, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has toured African-American college campuses, community centers and businesses to try to persuade African-Americans to join the party of Abraham Lincoln.
On the surface, the effort appears less than fruitful. President Bush received only 11 percent of the African-American vote in 2004, up from 9 percent in 2000.
But an increase in the number of African-Americans voting Republican in Ohio helped deliver the state—and the election—to Bush. He got 16 percent of the African-American vote there in 2004, up from 9 percent in 2000. The president increased his African-American vote totals in Florida to 13 percent and in Pennsylvania to 16 percent.
Looking to build on those achievements, the Republican Party has fielded several African-American candidates in high-profile races: Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, for the Senate; former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann for governor in Pennsylvania; and state official Ken Blackwell for governor in Ohio.
"There's a sense that Republicans have been more competitive for the black vote," said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor. "In Pennsylvania and Ohio, you had a fairly significant increase in the black Republican vote, and people are mindful of that this year. Democrats are still sensitive about that."
So they're leaving little to chance. In Maryland, for example, Democratic Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who's trying to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, selected Anthony G. Brown, an African-American state delegate and Army officer who served in Iraq, to be his running mate as lieutenant governor.
O'Malley may have learned from a predecessor's misjudgment. In 2002, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend enraged African-Americans by choosing a white Republican as her running mate.
"It left a lingering feeling among black voters and black leaders that they were being taken for granted," Bositis said.
Her choice prompted many African-American voters to stay home, Walters said. The percentage of registered African-Americans who voted in Maryland dropped to 41.3 in 2002 from 50.5 in 1998. Ehrlich defeated Townsend to become the state's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew nearly 40 years ago.
Democrats in other states appear to have learned from Maryland's lesson.
In Florida, where African-American voter anger still simmers from the disputed 2000 presidential contest between Bush and Vice President Al Gore, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis selected Daryl Jones, an African-American former Air Force fighter pilot who served in Florida's state senate, to be his running mate.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center, however, found that African-American voters remain highly skeptical of the voting system as a result of the well-publicized problems in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004, when many blacks felt they were denied access to voting places.
Only 30 percent of African-Americans said they were confident that their votes would be counted accurately this election, down from 47 percent two years ago. The percentage of African-American voters who express little or no confidence in vote-counting measures has nearly doubled, to 29 percent from 15 percent, the Pew study found. African-American voters were more than three times more skeptical than their white counterparts—29 percent to 8 percent—that their votes would be tallied accurately.
"But black politics in general, and black voters and—especially—black candidates have been more at the forefront of the 2006 midterm campaign than any other midterm election in history," Bositis said. "I suspect that will counteract some of the pessimism about whether the system is really fair."
(EDITORS: The Joint Center survey was based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 15 to Oct. 10, 2004, with separate samples of 850 people from the general national population and a national sample of 850 African-Americans. There were 58 African-Americans respondents in the general population sample. All respondents were older than 18. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
(The Pew survey was based on telephone interviews with a nationwide sample of 1,804 adults ages 18 and older from Sept. 21 to Oct. 4, 2006. The margin of error on results based on registered voters is plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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