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As early primary voting got under way last week across Tennessee, Rep. Steve Cohen held a nearly 3-1 cash-on-hand advantage over his top opponent in the crowded 9th district Democratic primary.
But this highly charged intraparty battle taking place in Memphis might be one of those cases where the names on the donation checks are just as important as the numbers in the campaign account.
Cohens top primary challenger, attorney Nikki Tinker, who is black, picked up support from the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus in the form of a $5,000 check late last month.
Cohen is the only white House Member to represent a majority-black district and his re-election has been a racially charged affair, with some of his critics in Memphis claiming that his 2006 victory was simply the result of his being the one top-tier white candidate in a primary that split the minority vote among a dozen black candidates.
Tinker came in second to Cohen in the 2006 primary, and her second attempt to win the seat has been championed by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio). Like Tinker, Jones is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, a prominent black sorority.
But Cohen is not without supporters in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Since being elected to Congress from his 60 percent black district, Cohen has made an effort to reach across racial lines. In the past 19 months, the freshman Congressman has often found himself at the center of discussions on race and politics, and hes been generally successful. One notable misstep came in early 2007 when he received flak for expressing an interest in joining the CBC. He backed away from the idea after it became clear that Caucus rules made him ineligible.
As the election cycle has progressed, two prominent CBC members have come out for Cohen. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) have both cut radio ads for Cohens campaign.
In the past fundraising quarter, three white Members Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson (Conn.), Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) have cut checks to Cohen.
Meanwhile, CBC Executive Director Joe Leonard said earlier this spring that the CBC as a whole would not make an endorsement in the Aug. 7 primary.
If Cohen couldnt get the CBC to officially line up behind his campaign, having the organization on the sidelines was the best that the Congressman could have hoped for. That makes the $5,000 check to Tinker from the CBC political action committee last month even more interesting.
I thought they were staying out of the race, Cohen said on Friday.
CBC spokeswoman Keiana Barrett said the caucus still has not made any official endorsement in the 9th district race and that the CBCs PAC is run by a separate board and a separate organization in its entirety.
Cohen said that he doubts the donation from the CBCs political arm was an idea that came from the committee as a whole. Theres several members supporting me and I think most of the members dont want to get involved, so I doubt the membership at large was responsible for this, Cohen said.
Cohen pointed out that the chairman of the CBC PAC, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), is a Tinker supporter.
Meeks was said to be traveling and could not be reached for comment on Monday.
If Tinker is taking the donation as a sign of where the CBC as a whole stands on the primary, shes not boasting about it.
I appreciate the support weve received from the CBC PAC, Tinker said in an e-mail. Their support will help get out our message of change for the 9th Congressional District.
But in the end, it will be Tinkers ability to consolidate and turn out black support on Aug. 7 that will determine Cohens political fate.