From Maryland to Tennessee to Ohio, the 2006 elections already hold a place in the history books: More black candidates from both major parties are mounting serious campaigns for upper-tier office – senator or governor – than ever before.
Even more noteworthy, three of the six men are Republican, a party that has struggled to boost its black affiliation above 10 percent. In Maryland, after the Sept. 12 primary, the major-party choice for Senate could come down to two African-Americans.
Whether this year's numbers represent a trend is too early to say. Let's get through a few more election cycles first, political analysts say. But these numbers are not just a coincidence. As with the long-fought rise of women in elective office, African-Americans have toiled for decades to boost their numbers at the lower political levels, and are building the résumés usually required for candidates to upper-level office.
"It's a signal moment in American politics," says Lester Spence, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Historically, blacks have faced a steep climb running for statewide office. Only one African-American – L. Douglas Wilder (D) of Virginia – has ever won the governorship. In the Senate, only five blacks have served, including two in the 1870s. If Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) of Tennessee wins his race, he will be the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
But that's a big "if." The Republicans nominated a moderate, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, and so it will be a tougher race for the centrist Mr. Ford than if one of the more right-wing Republicans in the primary had won. And even though the Ford family is a brand name in Tennessee politics – Harold Jr.'s father preceded him in representing the Ninth District for 22 years – the legal problems of other family members could hurt him.
Polls show a tight race, but "Harold's not going to win without a strong Demo- cratic wave," says David Bositis, an expert on African-American politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
Of course, the 2006 midterms are showing the telltale signs of a pro-Democratic "wave" election, with the Republican-controlled White House and Congress suffering from high negatives. That could help sink the black Republicans running for statewide office. In Pennsylvania, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, retired Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, already faced the near-impossible task of unseating the incumbent Democrat, Ed Rendell.
But in Ohio and Maryland, a more favorable climate toward Republicans could have been a boon to Ken Blackwell, nominee for governor in the Buckeye State, and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the only viable Republican in the Maryland Senate race. Both of those men are considered underdogs in their general election races.
Mr. Blackwell, in particular, suffers from GOP scandals in his state. "State party scandals – that's the biggest enemy of Ken Blackwell," says Raynard Jackson, a black Republican activist.
In Massachusetts, Deval Patrick is one of three Democrats in the primary for governor. While he brings a major-league résumé – Harvard-educated, top Justice Department appointee, executive at Coca-Cola – this is his first foray into politics, and he is in a tight race.
Still, Mr. Patrick is representative of a new breed of black politician: Ivy League educated, at home in corridors of power.
Of the six African-Americans running for upper-tier office, only former Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland – a Democratic contender for Senate – brings to his contest an inner-city street image reminiscent of the old-style civil rights struggle. But he, too, faces an uphill battle for his party's nomination, amid allegations of sexual impropriety during his tenure as head of the NAACP. If his main primary opponent, Rep. Ben Cardin, wins the nomination, polls show him beating Mr. Steele. Maryland, after all, is a Democratic state. If Mr. Mfume wins, the race tightens up, as some of the white vote shifts to Steele.
Ultimately, all six of the African-Americans running for Senate and state house could end up losing. When a white and a black with comparable qualifications go head to head, "then racial stereotypes come into play," says Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. "People ask, 'Can he govern? Can I trust him to represent me?' Blacks have to go the extra mile to prove their fidelity and their competence."
Voters remain more comfortable with representatives who "look like them," Professor Walters says. But, he adds, it's better for black politicians to run and lose than not to try in the first place.
For black Republicans, the frustration is especially palpable. Despite efforts to reach out to black voters, the national GOP recruited an alternative candidate who happened to be white to run against a well-funded black pastor in the Michigan Senate primary. The white candidate won.