Black Voters Crucial in South

Posted August 26, 2008 at 8:02pm

With the emergence of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as the new face of the Democratic Party, black voters — traditionally the party’s most loyal — are expected to be especially motivated this year.

But Democratic strategists and party officials are cautioning their House and Senate candidates not to simply assume that Obama’s draw at the top of the ticket will automatically translate into votes downballot.

Especially in the South, where Democrats are pushing a slew of conservative candidates who they hope will allow them to flip several traditionally Republican seats, Democratic operatives are working hard to make sure that they don’t turn off black voters as they seek to reach out to independents and Republicans who might be persuaded to give the Democratic Party a chance.

“In any state, in a general election the Democratic Congressional candidate’s challenge is making sure that African-Americans … don’t go into that ballot box to vote for Obama and leave,” said John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster. “You’ve got to be very careful for drop off votes. It’s going to be important for these candidates to get known in the African-American community” so that voters remain motivated up and down the ballot to vote for Democrats.

That’s not to say that Obama’s name alone won’t provide some inherent advantage for Democratic candidates looking for a strong showing from black voters this fall. This spring’s special election in Mississippi’s 1st district proved that even when Obama’s not on the ballot, he can be a powerful force.

Between the April special election and the May runoff, Republicans sought to tie the the Democratic candidate, Travis Childers, who is white, to the more liberal Obama in an effort to hurt Childers’ chances among the conservative northern Mississippi voters.

But “when Obama was used as a foil to defeat Childers, our turnout among African-Americans was amazing compared to the first round of voting,” said Anzalone, who worked on that campaign.

Indeed, after weeks of Republicans and Democrats arguing over Obama’s connections to Childers and northern Mississippi, vote totals in the 1st districts’ two largest black counties doubled during the May runoff.

Still, Democrats are treating the outcome of that special election as more of an exception rather than the rule, and strategists say they can’t just depend on Obama’s coattails to create the kind of support in the black community that they will need to win several close open-seat and challenger Congressional races this fall.

Two hot House open-seat battles in Alabama could well turn on black voter turnout, especially in the Montgomery-based 2nd district where popular Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D) is taking on wealthy state Rep. Jay Love (R) in a district with a 29.4 percent black population.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, where African-Americans made up 34 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election, Sen. Roger Wicker (R) is facing former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) in a special election to fill the remaining four years of former Sen. Trent Lott’s (R) term. Wicker has put into motion a minority outreach effort that is particularly focused on historically black colleges and minority communities in the northern 1st district, where he spent seven terms in the House and was generally well-liked and well-known for his focus on education as well as his influence on the House Appropriations Committee. Mississippi strategists estimate that if Musgrove is going to knock off Wicker, he can’t lose any more than 7 percent to 8 percent of the black vote to the former Congressman.

But more than any other state, Louisiana offers the most interesting puzzle when it comes to determining the influence of black voters on November’s Congressional elections. That’s not just because Hurricane Katrina reshuffled large parts of the population out of heavily black cities like New Orleans and into other sections of the state, but also because several different scenarios are playing out in the Bayou State this fall when it comes to the Democratic Party and its relationship with black voters

In the battleground 6th district where Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) won a special election this spring to replace ex-Rep. Richard Baker (R), Democrats are facing a tough general election battle against state Sen. Bill Cassidy (R).

But the biggest problem for Cazayoux, who is white, may not come from Cassidy’s strong political résumé or the support the state Senator is getting from national Republican leaders. Rather, Cazayoux’s biggest concern may well be the fact that Democratic state Rep. Michael Jackson, who is black, has filed to run as an Independent. Jackson, who is well-known in Baton Rouge, is expected to perform well among the 33 percent of the district that is black and that was a key voting block for Cazayoux in his 3-point special election victory.

Jackson lost to Cazayoux in a Democratic special primary runoff this spring, and Jackson has since blamed the national Democratic Party, specifically the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for that loss. He claims that DCCC officials made it known that they preferred Cazayoux to be their candidate in the special election and worked behind the scenes to ensure Cazayoux emerged from the primary over Jackson.

DCCC officials readily admit that they recruited Cazayoux last fall before Baker announced his decision to leave Congress. But committee officials argue that when a primary race developed on the Democratic side ahead of the special election, the national party stepped back and allowed district voters to make their own choice about who they wanted in the race to fill the remainder of Baker’s term.

But Jackson said there was an uneven playing field in the primary and added that despite the fact that the Baton Rouge-based district is more liberal and more black than it has been in the past, the national party had its sights set on a more conservative white legislator from the western edge of the district and never considered recruiting a black politician for the job.

Now, Jackson said, he is dedicated to seeing his long-shot Independent bid through to November and recently demonstrated his commitment to his bid by turning down a job offer with the Obama campaign.

Jackson said last week that he’s not running as a spoiler nor is he running to get back at the national party.

“I think we have a very good chance of winning,” Jackson said. “I think that African-American voters have been taken for granted [by the national party]. I think the byproduct of this race is that we won’t be taken for granted any longer.”

Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based pollster with the nonpartisan Southern Media & Opinion Research, said last week that the national party in general and DCCC in particular has “taken a beating” in the Baton Rouge area over what happened with Jackson and that if Jackson’s decision to run as an Independent catches on among other black legislators in Louisiana, it could spell disaster for the party, regardless of how popular Obama is with black voters.

Indeed, Louisiana Democrats narrowly avoided a similar situation in the Shreveport-based 4th district when state Sen. Lydia Jackson (D) contemplated, but eventually decided against, making an Independent bid in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.). Such a move would have severely handicapped Democrat Paul Carmouche — a well-known local prosecutor who is white and whom the DCCC recruited for the race — in a 33 percent black district.

Some Louisiana political consultants have interpreted the fact that Lydia Jackson was contemplating an Independent bid as a sign that in Louisiana — a 32 percent black state — Democrats may have trouble getting an enthusiastic black vote downballot.

“I don’t think it’s safe for candidates to just assume that because there’s a ‘D’ behind their name that on Election Day they are going to get an enthusiastic and monolithic black vote,” Lydia Jackson said, adding that the national party hasn’t exactly proved to be a friend to black voters in Louisiana.

“I’m not so sure that the party should continue to expect enthusiastic support from African-Americans when candidates are not voting in their interests or acting in their interests,” she said.

Pinsonat said that if Democrats want to have any chance of being able to win national elections in Louisiana, they need to do more to reach out to the state’s black elected officials so that they don’t feel as if the party is taking them for granted.

Lydia Jackson said that is precisely what party leaders were trying to do when they threw their support behind state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. (D) this summer in Louisiana’s 7th district.

Cravins entered the race against Rep. Charles Boustany (R) in late June with the full-throated support of the DCCC and not soon after he was added to the committee’s “Red to Blue” campaign and infrastructure support program.

But Boustany’s seat is generally considered less ripe for the picking for the Democrats than the 6th district was in the special election and the 4th district is this fall.

“I think that that’s a safe place for the party to play and that’s why they are playing in that race,” Lydia Jackson said. “I think it was an attempt by the party to save face and that has nothing to do with Don Cravins. He’s a wonderful guy and a great candidate.”

Both Cravins’ campaign and the DCCC strongly dismissed those assertions last week.

“The fact of the matter is that Don Cravins is an extremely strong candidate and we were please that he decided … to run in this race,” DCCC Communications Director Jennifer Crider said last week.

She said Cravins’ background in the state Senate and the Louisiana House of Representatives as well as his family connections as the son of another successful state legislator are a few of the many reasons why the committee decided he would be a great addition to its Red to Blue program.

“We will not be distracted by anybody’s misguided assertions,” Crider said. “Our focus in Louisiana’s 7th district is on defeating Congressman Boustany.”

Well-known Democratic strategist James Carville, a Louisiana native, is also pressing Bayou State Democrats not to get caught up in intraparty conflicts that might distract the party from focusing on the real enemy — the Republican Party — this fall.

At Tuesday morning’s Louisiana delegation breakfast, Carville may well have been referring to the racial concerns that Michael and Lydia Jackson have expressed this cycle when he made unity the theme of his remarks on Bayou State Congressional races. With his typical Cajun flair, Carville said party unity would be the key ingredient in “that delicious gumbo of victory” that Louisiana Democrats are set to taste this fall.