WASHINGTON — African-American voters could have a major impact on the outcome of 20 House of Representatives races and 14 Senate contests if they can reverse a pattern of low turnout in nonpresidential election years, according to a report that the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released Thursday.
Improved African-American turnout by the Democratic Party's most loyal voting bloc is no guarantee against Republicans winning the 40 seats they need to regain control of the House, the report says, but it could help Democrats "significantly reduce their potential losses."
"There's no getting around it: It's going to be a bad year for the Democrats," said David Bositis, the center's senior political analyst. "How tough a year it's going to be for the Democrats will very much depend upon their base, and there's no part of their base that is more important than the African-American vote."
The study identifies 20 competitive House contests — 15 of them in the South — in districts with African-American voting populations of 10 percent or more. They include three districts in Virginia, three in Ohio, two in Louisiana and two in Arkansas.
"If Democrats retain half of these seats, it would be difficult for the GOP to gain the 40 seats necessary to regain the majority in the U.S. House," the report says. "Further, there are two GOP-held seats where black voters are a substantial bloc, and every Democratic pickup will make the GOP's goal of 40 more difficult to attain."
Of the 20 House races, two of the districts are held by Republicans: Anh "Joseph" Cao in New Orleans and Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, whose district includes Columbus. There's also a GOP seat in Delaware that became open after Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., tried and failed to win the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat. He lost to tea party-backed Christine O'Donnell.
Seven of those 20 seats are held by fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, and some political analysts think that could pose a problem in generating African-American enthusiasm at the polls.
Several Blue Dogs voted against the health care bill, a measure that had strong support among African-Americans. Locked in tough re-election battles, some are touting their differences with President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in order to woo conservative votes.
At least two incumbent Democrats — Reps. Bobby Bright of Alabama and Jim Marshall of Georgia — have signaled that they won't vote for Pelosi to be speaker again if Democrats keep the House.
In fact, the Alabama Democratic Conference, a black political organization, recently endorsed Bright in spite of his voting record largely to help Democrats retain the House.
"That was the only reason," said Jerome Gray, a former field director for the group.
On the Senate side, the report says that African-Americans could make a difference in several key races, including the matchup between Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican Carly Fiorina in California; tea party-backed Republican Rand Paul's race against Democrat Jack Conway in Kentucky; Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak's bid against Republican Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania; and Florida's contest among Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent.
Democratic Party officials say they're working feverishly to ensure a better-than-average African-American midterm election turnout. Democrats and their allies are spending $50 million aimed at minority and young voters.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said Thursday that low voter turnout in nonpresidential election years wasn't "an African-American voter phenomenon. It's not a regional phenomenon. Nobody votes in midterms like they do in regular years."
Still, Kaine said his party was doing all it could to encourage African-Americans to vote next month. For example, it's aggressively upped its advertising in African-American-oriented media — mainly radio and newspapers — from $280,000 for the nonpresidential 2006 elections to $3 million this year.
"In this reach-out to voters that we're doing . . . African-American voters are a very significant focus of our canvassing," Kaine said. "Thirty-five percent of the new voters in 2008 were African-Americans, so in addition to reaching reliable, every-year voters through traditional media we're also spending a lot of time with the new voters, too, to have them turn out at a higher level than would be the norm."
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