Illinois Black Turnout Key

Senate Outcome May Rest On White House Race

Posted February 21, 2003 at 6:14pm

Now that former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (Ill.) is the second black candidate to enter the Democratic presidential field, the coattail effects on black voter turnout in next year’s primaries could end up being most evident — and significant — in her home state. [IMGCAP(1)]

On March 3, 2004, Illinois Democrats will not only pull the lever for their desired presidential candidate (even though the party’s nominee may already be decided by that point), but they will also select a nominee to face Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) that November.

Currently two black Democrats, state Sen. Barack Obama and health care activist Joyce Washington, are among a crowded field vying for the Senate nomination, with Obama considered a top-tier contender.

While most political observers believe that the presence of Moseley-Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton on the Democratic presidential ballot is likely to boost black turnout in Illinois, there are mixed opinions on whether the increase would give state Democrats a black Senate nominee for the third time in 12 years.

“How the Moseley-Braun and Sharpton scenario might play out [in the Senate race] is contingent upon how much steam they generate in the state,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), adding that Sharpton would be less of a factor than the former Senator. “I think that could increase African-American turnout, which would help Barack Obama.”

Both Davis and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) are supporting Obama, a 41-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who was expecting to be the only black candidate in the race before Washington’s recent announcement that she wants to run.

Washington, a 52-year-old former health care executive from Chicago, sought the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor last year and placed second in the primary.

Before Washington entered the race on Feb. 5, Jackson and some other Democrats believed that Obama’s base would be 25 percent.

“I just don’t see how Barack Obama loses in a Democratic primary,” Jackson said.

He conceded, however, that there is increased voter turnout in presidential years and added that Obama would have to be successful fending off penetration from other candidates into the black base. Some of Obama’s primary opponents have won races for various offices with significant black support.

Jackson also said that while Obama’s campaign might benefit from the presence of Sharpton and Moseley-Braun on the primary ballot, it would be “completely separate and different” from the presidential campaigns.

Both Jackson and Chicago-based national Democratic strategist David Axelrod, however, touted Obama’s “broad base appeal,” and predicted that he would be able to make inroads in Chicago’s Lake Shore neighborhoods, a bastion of prosperous white social liberals.

“He is the progressive candidate in the race,” said Axelrod, who is working on behalf of Obama’s campaign.

In addition, Axelrod said, “Obama has a very, very strong potential to get strong vote out of his base.”

He noted former state Attorney General Roland Burris’ (D) performance in the 2002 gubernatorial primary. Burris, the first black to be elected to statewide office in Illinois, took 29 percent and came in third.

But an operative working on behalf of one of Obama’s primary opponents indicated that the state Senator’s support within the black community might not be that strong.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who also represents the Chicago area, warned against any of the candidates embracing the perceived conventional wisdom that the black community votes as a block.

“There’s just as much potential for the voting black community to support any of the candidates, as it is for them to support one or two of the African-American candidates,” Rush said. “I just don’t buy into that. … All the bets are off here.”

Rush said he has not made up his mind about whom he is supporting in the race and will not do so until after the completion of Tuesday’s municipal elections in Chicago. Rush expressed frustration that the Senate race jockeying has overshadowed local campaigns.

“I’m absolutely flabbergasted and inflamed because of the insensitivity of candidates who are going to be on the ballot in 2004, not allowing these local candidates … to conduct their campaigns,” he said. “Voters are turned off to this kind of approach right now.”

Although he remains undecided, it would come as a surprise to most observers if Rush endorsed Obama, who challenged the Congressman in a 2000 primary.

Other candidates in the Senate primary race are also vying for the black vote, particularly state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who comes from a well-known, politically active family.

Before Washington said she would enter the race, the 1992 Senate primary might have served as something of a historical model for next year’s race. That was the last time Illinois held a Senate primary on the same day as an open presidential primary.

Moseley-Braun gained the nomination in 1992 after facing two white opponents who brutalized each other, leaving her relatively unscathed. She won 38 percent in the primary while then-Sen. Alan Dixon (D) finished second with 35 percent.

That year, Moseley-Braun was also buoyed by the Anita Hill controversy that had consumed the Senate — and the nation — in the fall of 1991.

Moseley-Braun was elected that November but subsequently defeated in her first bid for re-election by Fitzgerald in 1998. She had been considered entering the Senate race earlier this year, before deciding to run for president.

But while the 1992 Senate primary contest featured only three candidates, there are currently seven candidates who have announced or expressed interest in next year’s primary.

Many operatives believe that the final field will feature no more than five candidates.

Besides Obama and Washington, the field consists of Hynes, multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull, attorney Gery Chico, who is part Hispanic, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and Metamora Mayor Matt O’Shea.

One difference between this race and other multicandidate contests is that almost all of the candidates are considered viable.

“All of them have traction,” Davis observed. “They’re all solid candidates. They’re no wimps in this race.”

Freshman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said that next year’s primary looks and feels more like the 1984 Democratic Senate primary.

That year, then-Rep. Paul Simon (D) emerged from a four-way race with 36 percent of the vote. Burris came in second with 23 percent. The presidential primary ballot that year also included a black candidate with Illinois roots: The Rev. Jesse Jackson (D), who garnered 21 percent of the vote on primary day.

Besides Simon and Burris, the race featured a free-spending candidate, Alex Seith, who was the Democratic Senatorial nominee in 1978, and state Sen. Phillip Rock, who had the all-important backing of the Democratic organization.

Seventy percent of Illinois’ Democratic primary votes are cast in metro Chicago, and approximately 65 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary comes from Cook County, where Moseley-Braun was recorder of deeds before being elected to the Senate, and where Pappas is well-known.

Hull, meanwhile, has vowed to spend $40 million of his own money to win the Senate seat.

“Money can take you so far, but it’s not enough unless you’re selling what people are buying,” Axelrod said.

Davis predicted that while Obama will run strong in the black community, he has the potential to do well elsewhere — and that is significant in a state where Democratic voters have frequently been divided by race and ethnic background.

“Voters are becoming less prejudice against candidates on the basis of race, ethnicity or heritage,” he said. “It’s a good thing to see.”