In Obama's Wake, Others Seek to Make History

By Chris Cillizza
Monday, April 6, 2009

In the wake of Barack Obama's historic election as the first black president, a number of African American Democrats have announced candidacies for statewide office in 2010 -- spurred, at least in part, by the example set by the former senator from Illinois.

Late last week, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker (D), who had been mentioned as a statewide candidate for years but had never run, entered the open-seat race for governor. Appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Zell Miller as the state's first African American attorney general, Baker would be making history again if elected governor.

Baker's announcement comes in the wake of decisions by Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), who is running to replace retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R) in Florida, and Rep. Artur Davis (D), who is seeking the Alabama governorship in another open-seat race.

All three men will face significant primary opposition from one -- or several -- white candidates. In Georgia, former secretary of state David Poythress is running and former governor Roy Barnes mulling over a comeback. In Alabama, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks entered the primary against Davis on Friday and state Sen. Roger Bedford is also looking at the race. In Florida, Meek faces state Sen. Dan Gelber (and potentially others) in the Democratic primary.

African American Democrats have run for statewide office before in the Deep South -- former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk ran for a Senate seat in 2002, as did then-Rep. Denise Majette in Georgia in 2004 -- but never before have so many black candidates announced so early and been so willing to challenge established white Democrats in primary races.

Republicans, for their part, have done everything they can to promote black candidates but have struggled to get them elected. In the 2006 cycle, black Republicans lost a Senate race in Maryland as well as gubernatorial contests in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Several black Republicans are considering statewide bids in 2010, including former congressman J.C. Watts (Okla.) who may run for governor, as well as potential Senate candidates Ryan Frazier (Colo.) and Michael Williams (Tex.).

It's hard not to see Obama's influence in these decisions -- particularly when he took on a white senator who happened to be the odds-on favorite to be the next president.

While using Obama for inspiration is great, trying to replicate what he did in 2008 will not add up to a win for any of these candidates, says John Anzalone, a Montgomery, Ala.-based pollster who is working for Davis's campaign.

"These guys need to run their own races, specific to their strengths, and frame the races in the context of what is important for their states," he said. "Mimic candidacies seldom work. These things just don't transfer down like that."

Meek, much like Obama, played down the racial angle. "I am not running to make history in Florida," he said. "President Obama has done that already."

That doesn't mean, however, that Obama won't be a factor in these contests. The question that each of these candidacies will seek to answer is whether having a black president will influence how voters think about their in-state politicians. Put another way: Does having Obama in the White House make it easier for Georgia or Alabama voters see the possibility that their own governor could be black?

Gubernatoriums Galore

The Davis and Baker gubernatorial candidacies are history-making, but they are only part of what Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, recently described as a "once-in-a-generation political cycle" in 2010.

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