Georgia Contests Test What Pulls Votes: Race or Party?

Two Georgia congressional races this November will provide the most dramatic tests of whether blacks can be reelected in Southern districts where most of the voters are white.

Democrats Cynthia McKinney and Sanford Bishop are battling to return to the House after the Supreme Court declared their majority-black districts - laid out to increase minority representation - unconstitutional. In Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, similar minority congressional districts have been redrawn or will be soon.

But nowhere has the black-white balance shifted so dramatically as in these two Georgia districts. As a result, the races here are being closely watched as a test of the validity of racial redistricting and whether Southern voters, now tilting toward the GOP, will choose their politicians along racial or party lines.

If Ms. McKinney and Mr. Bishop win, some analysts say, their campaigns could become models for biracial coalition-building. If they lose, it may mark a return to historic voting patterns and campaign tactics here: The Republican Party appeals to whites and the Democrats to blacks.

"A defeat of a McKinney or a Bishop ... may be evidence that the black-white coalition that has been the Democratic Party for 20 to 25 years is cracking up," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

McKinney, the state's first black Congresswoman, was elected in 1992 in the 11th District, an area that was redrawn after the 1990 census. Snaking from Atlanta to Savannah like a tree's roots, the district was 60 percent black. Today, that district is 11 percent black, so McKinney is running in the fourth District, which has a 33 percent black population. In southwest Georgia, Bishop's second District was also redrawn to be more compact and has gone from 52 percent black to 35 percent.

The representatives' political strategies differ. Bishop, a moderate who represents a rural farm population, is courting conservative white voters by campaigning on his House votes against the assault-weapon ban, votes for welfare reform, and his service on the agricultural committee.

McKinney, charismatic and unabashedly liberal, surprised many pundits by handily defeating three white opponents in the July primary. She is counting on the support of blacks, white women, and labor to help defeat her moderate, white Republican rival.

At the moment, Bishops appears to have a better chance of being reelected.

"Bishop is the odds-on favorite ... because of his past appeals across racial lines, the moderate voting record he compiled in his first four years in office, and his interest in supporting the farming interests," Mr. Bullock says. "McKinney certainly has the advantages that go with incumbency, but hers is a touchier situation."

The Congresswoman first got elected by staking out a position to the left and appealing to the black vote. Now she must maximize black participation and hope there are still enough white Democrats who put party first, Bullock says.

Still, while some say that the reelection of either Bishop or McKinney signals that blacks can be elected in white-majority districts, others disagree.

"If McKinney were to step down today, that district would be up for grabs, and I'd be willing to bet it would not go to an African-American candidate," says Selwyn Carter, director of voting rights programs for the Southern Regional Council. Mr. Carter argues that the power of incumbency has helped both candidates build coalitions in their new terrain. But black candidates running for the first time in majority-white districts face an uphill battle, he says.

The Supreme Court's rulings on redistricting will deplete black representation, Carter says. In 1990 only five blacks represented the South in Congress. It grew to 17 in 1992 after districts were redrawn to include majority-minority populations.

But the court rulings have forced North Carolina to redraw its districts after this year's elections. Two districts in Texas and a district in Florida have already been redrawn.

"If McKinney is reelected it doesn't drive the final nail in the coffin but it puts to rest an awful lot of the argument that says you've got to draw districts that are 55 to 65 percent black to give blacks any kind of chance," Bullock says. "If she loses it will probably be interpreted as white voters rejecting black candidates ... but she may not lose because of race but because of her ideology."

Some analysts say the Democrats' biracial coalition is on the line. They worry that white Southern Democrats will only vote for moderate white Democrats or Republicans but not black candidates. If that happens, blacks would feel disenfranchised, relegated to foot soldiers in the party, says Gus Cochran, a political scientist at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. "That's what the future of the Democratic Party hinges on: How are we going to allocate leadership in a way that's reflective of the diversity of the base."

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