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.
The battle for control of the wealthiest district in the wealthiest state in the country is being fought in the gritty streets of Bridgeport, where most of the district's African Americans live.
"Bridgeport is key to this whole election," said Gary L. Rose, who chairs the department of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. "It's kind of wild what's going on here. We're dealing with the very impoverished part of the district, and that's where the energy seems to be."
The importance of the black vote is so great, even though it represents just 11 percent of the district, that Shays is running ads directly aimed at Bridgeport that feature African American residents testifying about his effectiveness in Congress. Another Shays ad includes an image of Obama, in the most direct attempt by a House Republican to tie himself to the top of the Democratic ticket.
Himes based his campaign headquarters in Bridgeport and has sent mailings tailored to African American voters. He has met with minority organizations and, like Kissell and others, has made the rounds of black churches.
Kissell is hoping to claim the 8th District of North Carolina, which spans 10 counties along the southern part of the state, stretching from Charlotte, the state's largest city, east to Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg. Between are clusters of suburbs and a rural chunk of cotton fields, pig and chicken processing plants, and dying mill towns.
Kissell is challenging Republican incumbent Robin Hayes, who has represented the district for 10 years. In 2006, with little name recognition, a meager bankroll and virtually no support from the national party, Kissell came within 329 votes of toppling the Republican.
But it was an odd year for North Carolina politics -- there was no race for president, U.S. senator or even governor to draw people to the polls. Just 25 percent of voting-age adults cast ballots, leaving both sides to wonder how the dynamics will change in a presidential election year that also includes a high-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate.
Linda Ingram, 49, who met Kissell this month when he knocked on her door in the working-class hamlet of Hope Mills, didn't vote in 2006 but is headed to the polls this year.
"I was just thinking about the need to vote Democratic down the line," said Ingram, who is black and voting for Obama. She saw a vote for Kissell as another way to support Obama, "because the president is going to need help in Congress to push his agenda."
As of last Wednesday, with the aid of Obama's field organization, Democrats had expanded their voter-registration rolls in North Carolina by 277,246 this year, compared with a GOP registration gain of 57,514. For the first time, North Carolina will allow same-day registration during an early-voting period that began Thursday and ends Nov. 1, giving campaigns yet another chance to identify unregistered voters and get them to vote.
Kissell, 57, is a former textile plant manager who became a high school civics teacher seven years ago. Hayes, 63, is an heir to the Cannon Mills textile fortune. With a personal wealth of nearly $79 million, he was ranked fifth-richest member of Congress by Roll Call.
In an election year in which the economy is the top issue and in a district that has lost about 60,000 jobs in the past decade, Kissell's standard pitch is heavy on populism.
At Fuller's Old Fashion BBQ in Fayetteville on a recent Sunday, Kissell mingled with an exclusively black after-church crowd, where the politics swirled in the air like steam from the all-you-can-eat buffet.
"Hi, I'm Larry Kissell, I'm a 27-year textile worker. I came out of the mills and became a teacher," he said, bending his tall frame over one table of women. "I'm running for Congress because I just couldn't take it anymore."
The women nodded. "Washington is forgetting the middle class," he said. More nods and a "mmm-hmmm" from one woman. "Appreciate if you keep me in mind Election Day," he said. On to the next table.
In a telephone interview, Hayes said that he is not concerned about Obama's coattails and that he is relying on relationships built through constituent service and federal money he has brought to his district. That resonates with many voters here, white and black.
Tommy LeGrand, a 69-year-old black pastor, credits Hayes for getting federal money for the community center he runs. A registered Democrat, LeGrand is voting for Obama, but volunteering for Hayes's campaign. "Some will go and vote straight Democrat," he said. "I vote for the person who I feel is going to do more for the community."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.