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In Senate races, little talk of Ferguson. Will that hurt black voter turnout?

African-Americans are engaged in intense discussions about the race and justice issues raised this summer. But the Senate candidates – many in tight races that could determine control of the chamber – aren’t talking about Ferguson.

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    Tara Patterson, owner of The Beauty Shoppe salon in Ankeny, Iowa, combs the hair of a client on Oct. 3. Ms. Patterson says she's leaning toward voting for Democrat Bruce Braley in Iowa's close Senate race. But she's frustrated that, after the shooting of African-American teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August, the Senate candidates aren't talking about the most important issues for her: police brutality, racial equality, and the future of African-American men in America.
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In the razor-thin Senate race in Iowa, Tara Patterson, a sought-after African-American voter, is deeply disappointed that neither candidate is talking about what’s most important to her: race and justice issues that can be summed up in one word, Ferguson.

The mother of a son in middle school and another in high school says she wants “African-American boys to be able to grow up and feel equal and not feel inferior.”

And not end up like Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. The shooting triggered riots and protests, a grand jury and federal investigation, a congressional hearing, and a firestorm of national media coverage.

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In the Senate races in Iowa and elsewhere, where Democrats must have high African-American turnout if they want to retain control of that chamber, the candidate silence on Ferguson is deafening.

Democrats are making an unprecedented midterm effort to get black voters to the polls on Nov. 4 – registration drives, targeted radio advertising, pitches from President Obama to black audiences. Yet Ferguson could undermine that work, some pollsters warn.

“We are underestimating the power of this issue. And if we continue to underestimate it, it will affect turnout,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, which is based in Washington. “Ferguson, and the lack of response to it, is a huge issue in the African-American community. It comes up in every focus group of African-American voters that we do.”

As it does with African-Americans all over the country. They’re tweeting and blogging about it, discussing it on talk radio, commenting on it on Facebook, and preaching about it in church.

True, high-profile members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland and Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, are bringing it up as they stump for embattled Democratic Senate candidates. But “I have not heard any discussion of it in the Senate races,” says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks those races for the independent Cook Political Report.

Only once, an electronic search shows, has a question about Ferguson come up in Senate debates in the four tossup states where African-Americans make up a large percentage of eligible voters: Georgia and Louisiana (more than 30 percent of voters in each state are black), North Carolina (22 percent), and Arkansas (15 percent). The black vote is essential to Democratic victories in all those states, though to a lesser extent in Arkansas, according to political analysts.

Cornell Belcher, a former pollster to Mr. Obama, says it’s “nonsensical” that Ferguson – which he describes as a “top-of-mind issue” for black voters – is absent from the Senate campaigns. He agrees that it could hurt turnout, saying that Ferguson issues are particularly salient for a core Democratic voter group, black women.

“The idea that you simply are not going to engage with that voter on one of their No. 1 issue-areas and expect that voter to mobilize and rally strongly behind your candidate is foolish,” Mr. Belcher says. He calls Ferguson a prime example of the “disconnect” between politicians and voters’ lives.

When asked why Senate candidates are not talking about Ferguson, Ms. Lake answers bluntly that “a lot of candidates are afraid of it” due to starkly differing views between the races. A national survey by the Pew Research Center in August found that 65 percent of blacks thought the police went too far in responding to the shooting’s aftermath. Among whites, only 33 percent agreed, while 32 percent said the response was about right and 35 percent offered no response.

Lake says that Ferguson also comes up in her polling firm’s discussions with white women, but in a completely different context. White female voters lump the topic with concerns about the Islamic State, school shootings, and Ebola. For them, it’s an issue of security.

Candidates don’t want to turn off nonblack voters, agrees Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. At the same time, they don’t want to appear to be pandering to the African-American vote. There’s also the question of whose political responsibility it is to deal with issues like Ferguson, she adds.

“For now, this is still kind of a local issue ... being brought up in local and state races and in city council races:... Who hires the police chief, and sees that the police chief has humane policies?”

Ground zero for that debate is Ferguson itself, where demonstrations and arrests continue, sometimes in large waves. On Tuesday, Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced an independent commission to study the issues raised by the shooting and its aftermath.

The events this summer have upended politics in Ferguson. This month, a group of fed-up, black Democratic leaders abandoned the Democratic candidate for county executive and instead endorsed the Republican.

One of the issues raised by Ferguson is the “militarization” of police, a topic that came up in Encinitas, Calif., at a recent candidate forum for mayor and the city council. Likewise, candidates for commissioner in Clallam County, Wash., sparred over whether police should accept surplus Department of Defense equipment, such as the Marine-issue equipment that Ferguson police used for riots this summer.

“It’s an issue that in many ways has to be dealt with locally,” says Democratic pollster Ron Lester, of Lester and Associates in Washington.

“I don’t think it’s related one way or the other to voter turnout,” Mr. Lester also says. But, he adds, Ferguson and all that it symbolizes for African-Americans “is a concern; it’s on their list, it is growing, and I think a lot has to do with cameras that are actually catching the police engaging in acts of racial injustice that years ago would not have been caught on camera.”

To the extent that they can be, “members of Congress are on top of this issue,” Lester says. They have introduced racial profiling legislation and are working on prison sentencing reform, and bills to restrict the flow of free military-grade equipment from the Pentagon to police forces have been introduced in both houses of Congress.

Pollster Belcher calls the “demilitarization of police” a good legislative place to begin, but he decries the national “void of leadership” on the racial justice issue that lies behind Ferguson.

“The problem with this issue, in this country right now, is that we can talk about gender issues that are problematic to some voters. We can talk to a certain degree about immigration issues that are problematic to certain voters. We cannot, however, talk about issues that talk about the historical troubled third rail of American cultural politics, and that is anything having to do with race matters on the black and white continuum.”

The racial divide is "the sun setting on our empire," he warns, because as long as it is there – and he describes it as large, if not growing – "we can't move forward and compete globally and come together."

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Belcher says: Ferguson can be seen simply as an American issue – as an issue of abuse of power, of police overreach and militarization that should concern everyone.

That is the direction that possible presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is going. In an Aug. 14 op-ed in Time, the GOP senator was clearly outraged by the racial aspect of Ferguson, but he went broader than that.

“When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury – national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture – we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands,” he wrote.

That’s exactly what concerns Ms. Patterson, the Iowa mother of two sons, who spoke to a reporter at the beauty salon she owns outside Des Moines.

Her general impression is that a lot of police feel like they are above the law and don’t get disciplined for abuse of power. “They’re going to keep doing these things,” she says, “and that’s going to be a whole American issue. It’s not going to be a Ferguson issue.”

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