Democrats Rally Blacks to Vote
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page A1
BATON ROUGE, La. – Democrats around the country are making extraordinary efforts to get black voters to the polls Nov. 3, convinced that a high turnout would give the party the edge in more than two dozen competitive congressional races and a handful of Senate and gubernatorial races.
The national party is counting on black voters to be its most reliable counterpunch to the white, conservative Christians whom pollsters predict will be motivated to vote for Republicans out of anger at President Clinton and his sexual misconduct.
Democrats have targeted 27 House races – about half of the most competitive House races this year – for special efforts to turn out black voters. Generally, those are races where blacks make up more than 8 percent of the voting-age population.
Typical of the party's efforts is Louisiana's 6th Congressional District, anchored by Baton Rouge, where lawyer Marjorie McKeithen (D) is seeking to unseat six-term Rep. Richard H. Baker (R) in a district that jumped from 13 percent to almost 30 percent black in a redistricting two years ago.
Cleo Fields, a former congressman who left politics after a failed run for governor in 1995, is helping the state party and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee orchestrate one of the most comprehensive get-out-the-vote efforts Louisiana has ever seen.
In an interview at his law firm, Fields, who is black, said he has volunteered his time to help McKeithen and the party with everything from reviewing television and radio ads to making contacts in the city's black neighborhoods. Most important, the McKeithen campaign is using a political telemarketing system Fields owns that can reach 16,000 households a day.
"My target was to get her into every African American home," Fields said. "I can say she has made contact with just about every [black] voter."
Getting any voters out to the polls this year will be a challenge, most political analysts say. Voter turnout is typically lower during non-presidential years, and voter participation among all races and ethnicities has been steadily declining in the past three decades. A record-low 17 percent of the voting-age population turned out for primary elections around the country this year, down 45 percent since 1966, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Black voter turnout typically lags between 4 and 6 percentage points behind whites in midterm elections. When it has lagged 10 percentage points or more, Democrats have had problems, most recently in 1994. Low turnout among women voters also contributed to the party's problems that year.
Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said black voters are crucial for Democrats this year. They are the closest offset the party will have to the white, conservative Christian voters. "In that sense, mobilizing that block of voters has no downside risk for Democrats," Gans said.
Not all of the targeted districts have large black populations. For instance, in Wisconsin's 1st Congressional District, an open seat where Democrat Lydia Spottswood faces Republican Paul Ryan, only about 4 percent of the voting-age population is black. But the race is so close, black voters could make the difference. Furthermore, blacks are easy to target because they are clustered primarily in Kenosha and Racine, the urban parts of the mostly rural and suburban district.
The DCCC, coordinating with the Congressional Black Caucus and various state parties, has committed nearly $1 million – three times more than it ever has in any given year – for its effort. About half of the money will help finance an ad blitz on black and Hispanic radio.
Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and several African American members of Congress have made commercials that have started airing in about 30 markets across the country, including Baton Rouge, Cincinnati, Louisville and Pine Bluff, Ark., where GOP incumbents hold a tenuous grasp on seats in districts with large minority populations.
Typical of the ads is one that began running in Baton Rouge last Thursday, featuring Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights-era hero.
"Thirty years ago, I worked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to win our right to vote. I was beaten bloody and put in jail over forty times," Lewis says in the ad, before going on to detail Republican efforts to kill the minimum wage increase and health-care programs for families. "We have shed too many tears and too much blood to let Republicans take away those who protect our families. Fight back. Vote the Democratic ticket."
The Lewis ad, like the get-out-the-vote effort in general, makes no mention of the Clinton scandal, but it is undoubtedly meant to capitalize on anger at what most blacks see as a Republican party obsessed with scandal to the detriment of issues that concern them.
"I really think this setback with [Clinton] and his personal life has energized black voters more than before," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has led the effort. "And I think if we get them out, it can really make a difference."
But David Bositis, a senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington, said Democrats cannot rely only on anger against Republicans over the Clinton scandal to motivate black voters. Bositis said a recent poll by the center shows that for the first time more blacks than whites said they were better off financially now than they were a year ago. Therefore, blacks could mimic the complacency of white voters satisfied with the economy and stay away from the polls.
This year, black caucus members – who, with a few exceptions, hold safe seats – have been among the most active in raising money for other candidates in competitive races. This week, a number of high-profile black members, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), began stumping for candidates in districts with significant black populations.
Rangel has helped raise $1.3 million for a broad coordinated get-out-the-vote plan. The money has gone to the DCCC and individual candidates. And on Thursday, just days before the election, Rangel and other black caucus members will embark on a three-day bus tour through Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville and Racine, Wis., for "an unprecedented effort to energize and motivate African-American voters," according to a DCCC news release.
Jackson also has been very active, crisscrossing the country to attend rallies for candidates in more than a dozen cities. The Democratic National Committee contributed around $200,000 toward Jackson's effort.
In an interview last week, Jackson said his message of education, health care and social security is meant to motivate not just blacks, but also Hispanics, women, working-class whites and other key Democratic constituencies.
"Clinton is not on the ballot; Lewinsky is not on ballot," he said. "But [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich is on the ballot and [Sen. Majority Leader Trent] Lott is on the agenda."
Jackson said he spent part of Friday morning on a conference call with about 80 Illinois officials talking about how to build support for Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, who is considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate this year. And he said earlier in the week that he held a similar conference call with more than 100 black ministers around the state.
Yesterday, the first lady talked to more than 200 prominent black women leaders and civic activists around the country in a conference call.
In Louisiana's 6th District, turnout will be especially crucial. The district's boundaries were changed after a court threw out a black majority district that Fields had represented since 1992, and Baker's district received much of the spillover. Democrats here say privately that black turnout needs to be at least 35 percent – five to 10 points higher than most midterm turnouts – for McKeithen to have a real shot.
Even though Baker has won his last few races by significant margins, Democrats have put Baker on their vulnerable list based on the district's new demographics. McKeithen was down about 10 points in one recent poll, but political analysts and insiders still give her an outside chance and say the outcome will depend largely on turnout.
Several black leaders and activists in Baton Rouge said McKeithen, who is white, has worked energetically to build support among black voters. McKeithen, a moderate Democrat who supports the death penalty and opposes gun control, avoids talking about Clinton, unless asked. She is critical of his behavior but says she would have opposed the Republican's open-ended impeachment inquiry.
McKeithen's television ads have excoriated Baker, a member of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, accusing him of paying more attention to Wall Street than his own constituents – a message that seems to have resonated with many black and working-class white voters. In a speech to about 100 students at predominantly black Southern University last week, McKeithen criticized Baker for opposing minimum wage increases while voting for a congressional pay raise.
"I heard about him with those banks, and that's what did it for me," said Louis Poland, 51, who has not worked for several years because of a disability.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company