Are Black Candidates for 2006 Statewide and Federal Offices Longshots?
Looking over the electoral map for this fall, it struck me today that one thing I haven't really read anyone saying (though I'm sure some bloggers probably already have) is that this will probably be a bad year for most of the Black candidates running for statewide and federal offices. The reason behind this is that in the cases of Black candidates for state and federal posts, it's the wrong candidate with the wrong politics for the wrong post. Though the Democrats have become resurgent in Congressional and even state generic polls after nearly six years of disastrous one-party Republican rule in Washington, the Democrats who're running for the federal positions (US Senate) are not the best fits for the electorate they're trying to woo, while the Republicans, almost to a person, represent a party whose ideology and policies--if not politics and political handiwork--have proved miserable failures in terms of governance and stability.
In terms of the Democrats, take for example the two open Senate seats in which Black candidates are running: Tennessee and Maryland. In Tennessee, a very conservative Democratic, Harold Ford Jr., is running to fill the seat being abandoned by Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist. Tennessee has trended Republican for a decade, and its last Democratic senator was former Vice President Al Gore, who, during his Senate tenure, was fairly conservative. Ford, who as recently as the past year said that he "loved" George W. Bush, and who has been subjected to a steady stream of racist attacks (which fixate on his friendship with White women), will face Republican former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, who is to the left of many Southern Republicans, but about on par with Ford in terms of ideology. This disadvantages Ford, because if the mostly non-Black Tennessee electorate has the choice of two candidates with similar beliefs, they are probably going to choose the non-Black candidate, especially if Corker is able to straddle his party affiliation with the sense that he's not so intimately tied to the far right of the Republican Party. (Effectively, however, once he reaches Washington he will likely serve as a rubber stamp for whatever Bush and that party want.) I'm not exactly convinced that Ford could have won under any circumstances other than facing a far-right extremist who also happened to be Black, like Alan Keyes (as Barack Obama did), but he's definitely going to have a very hard time defining himself as the better option in his run against Corker. Were he to win, it would be a major upset and a noteworthy referendum against the current national state of affairs.
In Maryland, it's a different issue. A liberal-progressive Democrat, Kweisi Mfume, who formerly headed the NAACP, is one of the frontrunners in a primary battle against a moderate Democrat, Ben Cardin. Either of them will probably win Democratic primary and then face Republican Michael Steele, the African-American current lieutenant governor and protegé of Maryland's unpopular GOP governor Bob Ehrlich. Mfume probably would have had much smoother sailing had allegations of sexual harassment in his former post not come to light, and yet he leads the politically incompetent Steele, who has advanced spurious narratives about being pelted with Oreos, compared stem cell research to the Holocaust (he apologized for doing so), and was recently unmasked as the unnamed Republican who trashed Bush and his party to a pool of Washington reporters, though he immediately backtracked when his identity was revealed. His ineptitude seems to know no bounds, and he's on the wrong side of multiple issues. While it's pretty clear that Cardin, if he wins the primary, will defeat Steele handily in a Democratic-leaning state, given the fact that Maryland has one of the highest percentages of Black residents in the US, a progressive Black Democrat with none of Mfume's personal baggage could probably also have been elected by a blowout comparable to Obama's in Illinois in 2004.
The Democrats could have found some viable Black candidates to run in other Senate races; in Minnesota, to replace retiring Senator Mark Dayton (Democrat Amy Klobuchar leads that race); in Rhode Island, to face faltering candidate Lincoln Chafee; or in New Jersey, had governor Jon Corzine nominated state representative Nia Gill, which he very well may do in 2008 when senior Senator Frank Lautenberg, who's in his 80s, very likely steps down. As it is, Obama could have two colleagues, both from former slave states, though it's increasingly looking like he will be the only African American and one of only a handful of people of color in the US Senate for the near future. In statehouse races, the Democrats also haven't advanced many Black candidates, though many of their candidates this year are moderate incumbents--a decent number of women--who probably will be reelected, including in red states such as Kansas and Arizona.
In Michigan, conservative and former city councilman Reverend Keith Butler is vying for the Republican seat to face incumbent Democratic Debbie Stabenow, who defeated incumbent Senator and former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham in 2000. Despite the large pool of Black voters in Detroit and its environs, as well as in the western part of the state, Butler is too far to the right and will probably lose to Oakland County sheriff Michael Bouchard; in most polls he's still trailing Stabenow, who has reliably voted with the Democratic caucus and against the Bush administration's policies. Were Butler more moderate, he might actually win the nomination, and could give Stabenow a run for her money, since Michigan's once popular Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, is in the political fight of her life, and Democrats are being blamed for Michigan's stagnant economic situation. As it is, Stabenow is far and away the best option and Butler's chances are slim.
In various gubernatorial races, African-American Republicans who've been touted as potential winners increasingly find themselves out of step with the electorate they're trying to win over. In Ohio, Republican Ken Blackwell has moved so far to the extreme right of his party that the state Republican Party, which is facing multiple political and financial scandals, is not giving him its unmitigated support. Blackwell is alleged to have played a key role in the systematic disenfranchisement of African American and poor voters during the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, so it would be karmic justice if he were to lose this year, though he has been galvanizing support among some Black ministers and other Black voters. To win, however, he'll have to win over most of the non-Black Republicans. With his well known ultraconservative positions on a variety of issues (just a week or so ago he spouted virulent anti-gay comments), can he do it? It thankfully doesn't look good. His opponent, Democrat Congressman, Rev. Ted Strickland, who recently was the object of a GOP-engineered anti-gay smear campaign, leads in the polls.
In Pennsylvania, football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann faces incumbent Democratic governor Ed Rendell. Everything I read by and about Swann's candidacy shows that he has few distinctive ideas or plans for the Democratic-leaning state, which went for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 (by a smaller margin). Swann appears to be relying on his celebrity and a bland, generic GOP message (low taxes, small government, etc.) to carry him into office, which is one of the reasons he's trailing Rendell by a sizable margin. The unpopularity of the Bush administration and of Republicans in the state legislature are the others. In a different year, perhaps during the final years of Clinton's presidency, when some portions of the Pennsylvania population took a censorious attitude on moral values issues, Swann might have been able to eke out a win, but it's unlikely this time. Rendell has got his number and is going to win.
Although RNC Chair Ken Mehlman has repeated expressed pieties and promises about trying to attract Black voters and candidates, from late 2001 through 2005, when George Bush had positive approval ratings, the Republicans had only one Black member of Congress (J.C. Watts, who stepped down in 2002), and did not field one Black candidate to run for a statewide office in the South, which was the Republicans' strongest region and also where the majority of African Americans (over 5o%), many of with conservative social beliefs, live. Did things change this election cycle? Outside of Steele, Blackwell, and a few others, no. In addition, this year they offered no support to potential gubernatorial candidate Randy Daniels in New York, who would have had an uphill battle against either of the two major Democratic candidates, Eliot Spitzer or Tom Suozzi; but the fact is, the party didn't even put any effort behind his interest in the run. Mehlman's cant seems to be convincing only to (some) fellow Republicans. Because of the Iraq War, the economy, the environment, and a host of other issues things look bleak for the Republican Party at the national level in general this fall, but the situation is bleaker still, I think, for the few Black candidates the party has fielded.
Young man on motorcycle reading book, 6th St. and 1st Ave.