By Perry Bacon Jr.
Friday, June 4, 2010; A03
Eighteen months after Barack Obama's presidential win seemed to usher in a new era in racial politics, a different reality has emerged: African American candidates in campaigns nationwide are struggling so much that it's possible that there will be no black governors or senators by next year.
The drubbing Tuesday of Rep. Artur Davis (D), who was running to be the first black governor of Alabama, was the latest in a series of defeats this year of African American politicians in primaries for statewide office. And two of the three who already hold major statewide posts are leaving them. One of the nation's two black governors, New York's David Paterson (D), who has been plagued by ethics scandals, opted not to run this fall -- the same decision made by the only black senator, Roland Burris (D-Ill.).
The only African American favored to win a gubernatorial or Senate race is Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D), who is running for a second term.
Aspiring black politicians, such as Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), who is seeking a Senate seat, are underdogs in general-election contests. And while a number of black Republicans are running, many are losing in primaries.
The defeats suggest that Obama's victory did not herald greater success for other black politicians.
"We have had breakthroughs, but the obstacles are still there," said Christopher Edley, who was special adviser for the President's Initiative on Race in the Clinton administration and is now dean of the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law. "The bench is weak. If you look at lower office levels or state legislatures, I think the picture is dramatically better, but we haven't been able to bring enough people up from there."
The majority of black politicians in Washington are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, representing districts that are disproportionately liberal and African American, making it difficult for them to build broader coalitions of supporters to win a statewide race. Two blacks, have been elected to governorships -- L. Douglas Wilder (D) of Virginia and Patrick -- and six, including Obama and Burris, have served in the Senate.
The recent losses do not have one unifying factor. Davis struggled to woo white voters in the primary but could not galvanize blacks, either. He lost to Alabama insurance commissioner Ron Sparks, who is white, in some overwhelmingly African American counties. Burris's connections to former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D) probably doomed his candidacy the moment he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Obama.
Black voters and activists, perhaps because of doubts about some black candidates' ability to win, have not rallied around them as they did Obama.
African Americans "are so invested personally in Barack Obama the man, and it's unique to him," said Cornell Belcher, a black pollster who worked on the Obama campaign. "They are invested in him in a way they are not in other black political leaders."
The primary process is thinning the ranks of black candidates, but among the few who remain, Patrick has a double-digit lead in Massachusetts. And Meek could benefit from a three-way Florida race in which two of the candidates -- Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, and GOP candidate Marco Rubio -- could split the conservative vote.
"There were a lot of people who were in fantasy land about black candidates all of sudden getting elected to all of these offices," said David Bositis, who studies black political trends at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "But in most years, there are only a handful of Senate seats that are truly competitive, and a lot of people want these seats. And given this is going to be a favorable year for Republicans, the notion that it was going to be a great year for African American candidates, it just wasn't going to happen."