With senior members engaged in difficult re-election efforts, the Congressional Black Caucus is facing an existential threat to its clout.
The tough races come as the caucus also faces new challenges to its identity, including how to assimilate black Republicans and whether — and how — to criticize President Barack Obama, the first African-American to hold the office.
At the heart of the CBC’s challenges are two high-profile Democratic Members, Reps. John Conyers (Mich.) and Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), who are in unusually stiff primary races.
The pair, the second and third most senior House Members, have served a combined 88 years in Congress.
Detroit-area Democrats say Conyers could face one of the toughest re-election matches of his career. Several Democrats will challenge him in the Aug. 7 primary, including state Sens. Glenn Anderson and Bert Johnson.
When local Republicans redrew the Congressional map last year, they dismantled the two Detroit-based House seats represented by Conyers and freshman Rep. Hansen Clarke (D), another CBC member. As a result, Conyers will seek re-election in mostly new turf.
The 24-term Congressman has also had his share of bad press in recent years. His wife, former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, is serving a three-year prison sentence for bribery.
Rangel is facing an unusually potent alignment of forces that make this the most difficult race of his career since he unseated longtime Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D) in a 1970 primary.
A judge moved New York’s primary from September to June, which is likely to result in a low-turnout race. And outside money has flooded in: The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a Texas-based anti-incumbent super PAC, is gunning for Rangel.
Rep. Edolphus Towns, who is in his 15th term and is a former CBC chairman, is retiring. Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) just lost a primary election to Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.). Hahn got 60 percent of the vote to Richardson’s 40 percent. With California’s new open primary rules, Hahn will be Richardson’s general election opponent and is favored to win.
And there is talk that even 13-term Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, could face a difficult July 31 primary, although Democratic strategists are confident he will be able to win.
Such scenarios point to a caucus facing a major challenge to its seniority and clout within the House.
But other CBC members have fought off Democratic primary challenges this year, such as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who handily beat former Rep. Debbie Halvorson in Illinois. And in past years, fights that were projected as tough turned into routs, such as when Rangel easily turned away his predecessor’s namesake, Adam Clayton Powell IV, in 2010.
Rangel and Conyers both have considerable name identification and loyalty from their years of service.
“It’s hard for most people even to know who the hell my opponents are. As much as the press talks about ’em, people don’t remember their names, or who they are,” Rangel said.
CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver said he’s not worried.
“We are the only caucus in Congress that did not lose a single member during the last election cycle. That is even more significant when you consider the fact that the last cycle was about as toxic for Democrats as any period during my adult life,” the Missouri Democrat said in an interview.
“I attribute it to something I have said to the entire caucus: In the end, people prefer real Democrats, and by that I mean we tend to vote Democratic principles,” Cleaver said. “The only member of the CBC who voted against health care was trounced in a gubernatorial election in Mississippi.”
That would be former Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, who responded: “Since Emanuel Cleaver can’t even remember what state I’m from, I doubt he knows much about the politics in my state.”
There are also questions about how the internal dynamics of the group could change if more black Republicans are elected.
“I do think you are going to see more black Republicans elected to Congress, beginning with Mia Love in Utah,” Davis said.
In the current Congress, Reps. Allen West (Fla.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) are the only black House Republicans. West joined the CBC and Scott did not, although Cleaver said Scott still maintains a good social relationship with black Members.
Love, a black Mormon mayor running in Utah’s 4th district, told the Deseret News, “I would join the Congressional Black Caucus and try to take that thing apart from the inside out.”
Although new Republican blood might create its own internal conflicts, many CBC members have been dealing with another issue more pressing to them: whether to criticize Obama from the left.
“I have attempted as the chair during his first term to walk between the raindrops,” Cleaver said. “We want to do everything we can do to be supportive of the president. And at the same time, Members will say, we have been publicly critical of every president since Nixon and we damage our authenticity when we are silent on issues that our constituents have historically seen us challenge.”
“Well maybe that’s what they got me to do. They got a member of the CBC that can do that,” West said, adding that his hope for the future of the CBC is a caucus with Republicans and Democrats evenly represented.
Davis said the CBC has failed to articulate an agenda.
“I think that the CBC has had a problem developing an agenda that is specific to the African-American community,” Davis said. “Other parts of the base have done a much more effective job of putting a specific agenda on the table.”
Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.