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Virginia Notebook: Democrats and the Black Vote

Tim Craig

They might still be buoyant over President-elect Barack Obama's success in carrying Virginia this year, but Saturday's election results from Louisiana should give the three Democrats vying to become Virginia's next governor a gut check about their own chances.

In Louisiana's 4th Congressional District, Republican John Fleming appears to have eked out a 365-vote victory over Democrat Paul Carmouche. On the same day, Louisiana voters ousted U.S. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D), who is awaiting trail on corruption charges.

In both those races, as well as the Democrats' failure two weeks ago to unseat Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a low turnout among African Americans played a key role in GOP successes.

African Americans make up a larger share of the population in those states than in Virginia, but the results from those three races hold sobering news for Virginia Democrats heading into the 2009 campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general: Although African Americans turned out in huge numbers this year to support Obama, there is no guarantee they are going to do so without him on the ballot.

As 20 percent of Virginia's population, African Americans are the most reliable source of votes for most Democratic candidates. Without their support and a big turnout, Virginia Democrats still can't win a statewide election.

Obama made gains this year among white Virginia voters, but had it been up to just them, he would have lost the state to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 21 percentage points, according to exit polls.

But the black vote showed up.

Exit polls indicate that blacks accounted for 20 percent of Virginia's electorate this year, a noteworthy accomplishment given that it is rare for the black vote to match the black share of the population. And as with all surveys, exit polls have a margin of error. Other data suggest that the black turnout in Virginia was even greater.

Petersburg City, where blacks make up 77 percent of the population, experienced a 22 percent increase in turnout this year compared with the 2000 presidential election. Richmond, which is 52 percent black, had a 20 percent increase, as did Norfolk, where 44 percent of the population is black. Obama won the 3rd Congressional District, where blacks make up 56 percent of the population, by 157,000 votes. That's double the margin that Democrat John F. Kerry racked up over President Bush in 2004.

Virginia Republicans hoping to stage a comeback think, probably correctly, that African Americans will turn out in far fewer numbers next year.

For Democrats to win, that number can go only so low. And the three Democratic candidates fighting for the nomination will have to prove between now and the June primary that they have the personality and strategy to engage the black vote next fall.

There is no clear front-runner in this effort, a potentially troubling sign for Democrats hoping to avoid a repeat of last week's elections in Georgia and Louisiana.

Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) have never represented large numbers of African Americans.

Moran and McAuliffe reside in Northern Virginia, which has fewer black voters than Richmond and southern and southeastern Virginia. Deeds represents an overwhelmingly white district in the lower Shenandoah Valley.

In the scramble to burnish his credentials with black voters, Moran is paying Del. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) $7,500 a month to reach out to the African American community on his behalf. Deeds picked up an endorsement Tuesday from Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), a veteran civil rights lawyer. McAuliffe has also been reaching out to African Americans.

The candidates might have to do more than rely on others to gin up African American support. But Virginia Democrats often appear more interested in burnishing their credentials with white rural and suburban voters.

Moran, for example, has spent years voting against gun control measures even though he represents liberal Alexandria. Deeds also touts his strong support for the Second Amendment. And Moran and Deeds are strong supporters of capital punishment, despite questions nationwide about whether it is unfairly applied against African Americans.

In recent statewide elections, Virginia Democrats have driven up turnout among African Americans by making the community afraid of the GOP alternative.

In 2006, many African Americans were repulsed by George Allen's use of the word "macaca" and questions about whether he had adequately repudiated his boyhood affinity for the Confederate flag.

In the 2005 governor's race, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) benefited from the decision by his Republican opponent, Jerry W. Kilgore, to partly base his campaign on what he said was a need to execute more Virginia criminals. Kaine had also been the mayor of Richmond, a position he used to help mend racial divisions in that city.

Four years before Kaine's race, Sen.-elect Mark R. Warner (D) campaigned aggressively for white, rural votes in his bid for governor. But Warner's GOP opponent, Mark Earley, frequently touted "Virginia values." (Note to GOP strategists: When African Americans hear the phrase "Virginia values," they think segregation.)

Warner also shared the ticket with Sen. A. Donald McEachin (Richmond), an African American who made an unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 2001.

But there are no African Americans running for statewide office next year. And Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) appears unlikely to repeat the mistakes of his recent predecessors as he runs for governor.

Of course, the eventual Democratic nominee might be able to rely on Obama's campaigning in Virginia next fall on his behalf, which could bolster African American turnout.

L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black governor, who also drew records numbers of African Americans to Virginia polls during his race in 1989, cautioned in a recent interview that Virginia Democrats should not pin their hopes on Obama.

"Barack Obama will not be able to wave a magic wand," Wilder said, noting that many African Americans were drawn to the polls because of Obama's message and because he campaigned hard in Virginia. "It isn't going to be easy. . . . It is a question of [blacks] not being taken for granted. . . . I fear someone else will look at Obama's success and say, 'I can do the same thing.' Well, that is like looking at someone else thinking, 'I can wear the same clothes and look that good.' It has to be individualized."

Staff polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

By Tim Craig  |  December 11, 2008; 10:33 AM ET
Categories:  Tim Craig  
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I'd be more concerned if the downballot races four years ago hadn't both been lost by less than one percent. Republicans are whistling past the graveyard if they think that the final runoffs and special elections should be "sobering" for Democrats. Virginia isn't Georgia, where defeating an incumbent Republican senator would have been a huge upset. And "Democrats wouldn't win with just white voters" is simply a canard, especially in a year when the GOP is whiter than ever. (There are plenty of groups of voters Republicans can't win without, either, but for some reason no one ever suggests that their votes don't really count.)

Turnout will be way down on both sides from the presidential year; it always is. But the gains in voter registration, voter identification, and organization are real, and will carry over into next year. I'd much rather be banking on that than on the idea that a decline from Barack Obama's peak will be enough to turn things around.

Posted by: jimeh | December 11, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

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