Black Turnout Could Decide House Races

Ernest Jones watches Democratic House hopeful Larry Kissell greet Clarence McCaulley at a church in Kannapolis, N.C.
Ernest Jones watches Democratic House hopeful Larry Kissell greet Clarence McCaulley at a church in Kannapolis, N.C. (By Jim R. Bounds For The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Daniel Miller weaved through the pews at Lewis Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, past the ladies in their Sunday hats and boys squirming in their suits, and headed for the only white face in the crowd.

It belonged to Larry Kissell, a Democratic candidate for Congress, and Miller was eager to tell him why, at 49, he is quietly panicked.

He showed up for work one day at Alandale Knitting to find the factory doors locked. He got a job mixing mud at a tile factory, but it relocated to Mexico. He moved 100 miles to work in a meatpacking plant but injured his back lifting an 80-pound vat of scraps.

"The jobs are just disappearing overnight," Miller said. "Something's got to change." That's why he is voting for Barack Obama, and why he will scroll down the ballot to mark Kissell's name, too.

It was Kissell's fourth trip to the church, and he prays that African Americans turning out in unprecedented numbers for Obama will push him across the finish line as well.

Kissell is one of at least 10 white Democrats in white-hot competitive U.S. House races who are counting on a surge of black voters to carry them into office. Most are challenging incumbent Republicans, and they are central to Democratic hopes of picking up as many as 25 additional seats, strengthening the party's control of the House.

Many of these races are in Southern states where African Americans make up a sizable minority. But the dynamic is also at play in such states as Maryland, Ohio and Connecticut.

As many as 70 percent of voting-age African Americans could cast ballots on Election Day, said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who studies black voter patterns. That number would far exceed the 56 percent who voted in 2004 and bust the record for black participation set in the 1968 election.

There is a certain irony in the pivotal role that blacks could play in congressional elections, given how some of the districts were drawn, Bositis said. "When these districts were designed, certain assumptions were made about what black turnout would be so that the district would pretty much favor Republicans," Bositis said. "Now, all of a sudden, you have an election . . . where African Americans are enormously excited and mobilized. Not only that, you have the Obama campaign going out of its way to make sure these voters are registered and are going to turn out."

Add the dampened mood among Republicans and the situation "has the potential of putting the Democratic candidates over the top," Bositis added.

A hint of how Obama might affect congressional races came during a special election in Mississippi this spring. In the contest to fill a vacancy in the 1st Congressional District, Republicans tried to link Democrat Travis Childers, who is white, to Obama, as a way to turn off white voters in the conservative district. Instead, black turnout doubled in the two counties with the largest African American populations and Childers won.

Hundreds of miles north, black voters are playing a decisive role in Connecticut's 4th Congressional District, home to the manicured estates of Greenwich and Darien. Republican incumbent Christopher Shays is fighting a vigorous challenge by Democrat Jim Himes, an investment banker-turned-social entrepreneur.

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