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Taking cues from Obama's playbook didn't bring Davis a victory

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 5:20 PM

The defeat of Rep. Artur Davis in his campaign to become Alabama's first black governor halted the rise of a man viewed as part of a new generation of young black politicians and showed the limits other politicians might face in using the tactics that helped Barack Obama win the presidency.

In what was widely thought to be a tight race, the state's agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks, won the Democratic primary by 25 points. Davis looked stunned Tuesday as he gave his concession speech.

Davis helped run Obama's successful 2008 primary campaign in the state and modeled part of his strategy on that effort. Obama defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton -- winning more than 80 percent of the black vote -- even as he generally eschewed discussion of his race and sought to build a coalition of supporters, black and white, beyond the state's traditional powerbrokers.

Davis adopted both of these ideas, but also made a move Obama did not in either his Senate campaign in 2004 or in the presidential run: moving to the right. With an eye on winning the general election in a conservative-leaning state, Davis angered liberals by not only voting in Congress against the national health-care legislation Obama championed, but actually attacking Sparks for supporting it.

An African American group called the Alabama New South Coalition, which had backed Obama in 2008 supported Sparks because, it said, "Artur Davis voted against President Obama's health-care package to further his ambitions when the president needed him most."

And as tensions rose between black leaders in the state and Davis, he pointedly refused to meet with them, leading them to endorse Sparks.

"Artur made a calculated decision not to appeal to the leaders of the black community and the groups," said Jerome Gray, who was the political director Obama's 2008 campaign but backed Sparks. "He wanted to go it alone."

The result: In the state's biggest urban areas, where Obama dominated, Davis faltered. In Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, the state' s largest city, and part of the area he represents in Congress, Davis lost to Sparks. Obama had won 72 percent of the vote there.

Davis lost badly in some of the state's most white counties, but also failed to secure the black vote in key areas. In Macon County in the central part of the state, where 83 percent of the population is black, Sparks outpolled Davis. Obama had won 83 percent of the vote there.

Davis is not known for the kind of personal charisma and speech-making helped Obama get such intense support among black voters, but Tuesday's result suggested the opposition of key leaders in the African American community and his vote on health-care prevented Davis from galvanizing the black vote.

"People didn't have the sense of history they felt with Barack Obama," said David Lanoue, a political science professor at the University of Alabama. "Maybe that was because history was already made. And he managed to alienate the moderate-liberal white vote by his health-care vote."

Davis, who met Obama when they were students at Harvard Law School, won his seat in 2002, defeating a longtime black incumbent, Earl Hilliard. Davis joined the Congressional Black Caucus but sought to define himself in the House outside of race issues.

In 2006, he was one of the leading candidate recruiters and advisers to Rahm Emanuel, then the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The next year, he was one of the first elected politicians to endorse Obama.

Davis was mentioned as potential member of the Cabinet after Obama won, but the lawmaker had long been looking toward winning statewide in Alabama.

From the start of his race, Davis -- eager to avoid discussions of race -- said his biggest challenge was not being black, but being a Democrat in a conservative-leaning state. And he ran his campaign that way. When Davis voted against one version of the health-care law, the Rev. Jesse Jackson attacked him, saying, "You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man."

Davis ignored the remark by Jackson, although he later told the Birmingham News, "I vigorously reject the insinuation there is a uniquely 'black' way of understanding an issue."

"If I was seen as being the candidate of the black political leadership, I wouldn't be electable," Davis told author Gwen Ifill last year for a book she wrote called "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama." "We're not going to spend a lot of time trying to get endorsements from those groups because it would be counterproductive."

Jackson, of course, had criticized Obama during the presidential race two years ago as well. But Davis's defeat suggests that, for now, any kind of "Obama Model" for black politicians may only apply to one man.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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