To hold Senate, Democrats look to black voters. Will enough be there?

In a handful of states, including Georgia, Democratic Senate candidates are counting on black voters to turn out big time to help them win. But signs are that enthusiasm for Democrats has been slipping among African-Americans.

David Goldman/AP
Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn talks with reporters during a stop to greet campaign workers and supporters at South DeKalb Community Achievement Center in Decatur, Ga., on May 13, 2014, ahead of the May 20 primary election.

As Republicans duke it out ahead of Tuesday’s Senate primary in Georgia, the front-runner on the Democratic side, Michelle Nunn, is plotting what she hopes will be a major upset in November – built on a coalition of African-Americans, young women, and Peach State transplants to supplement the 30 percent core of white voters who are reliably Democratic.

A victory could mean that the Democrats and Ms. Nunn – daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn – deny Republicans their bid to control both chambers of Congress. But here, as in other key Senate races in states where the share of black voters is high, a big unknown is whether African-Americans will be motivated to help Democrats defend the Senate.

The crux for Democrats such as Ms. Nunn in Georgia, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina is to maneuver around the polarizing figure of President Obama while also courting black voters, who historically tend to skip midterm elections at higher rates than white voters do.

That challenge looms even as a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll suggests that support for Mr. Obama is waning among likely black voters, complicating matters for Democrats in key Senate races. Another poll, this one from Pew, shows a considerable contingent of likely black voters "leaning" toward generic GOP candidates.

“Democrats ignore [such] blips at their peril,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and the author of “The New Black Politician.” “The Democrats can’t afford in Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina to assume they’re going to win the lion’s share of black voters, because they’re not automatically going to come out and vote.”

The reality, of course, is that only about 2 percent of black voters are registered as Republicans, and that 93 percent of blacks who voted in the 2012 presidential election cast ballots for Barack Obama, according to the Census Bureau.

Writing last month in Commentary, Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center notes that, “[S]ince the 2004 election, Republicans have steadily lost ground among women voters, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, and youth.”

But as the 2014 election season kicks into gear, that slide in black support may have stopped, even reversed. According to a May 5 Pew poll, 17 percent of African-Americans who are registered voters “lean” toward Republican candidates. The Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, in March, found that support for Obama and his policies is “softening among blacks….”

That doesn't mean the sky is falling for Democrats in terms of a key voting bloc. First, it’s a tad early to draw conclusions from polls. Second, some of this might be explained by a phenomenon in solid red Southern states in which Democrats have begun voting in open Republican primaries to have more of an influence over who ultimately governs.

Some conservative African-Americans, however, see in the poll numbers a sign that blacks are hearing a key Republican message: that black families have lost economic ground under America’s first black president, and that the Republican National Committee’s “choice and opportunity” message of school choice and small-business programs offers the greater hope for struggling minority neighborhoods.

“Those who have been working, in good faith, and against aggressive and well-financed opposition, to help black Americans appreciate that their future lies in the ideals of freedom, are starting to see results,” writes conservative activist Star Parker, who is black, in the Marietta, Ga., Daily Journal, citing the Pew poll.

But if Republicans see headway in pulling African-American support from Democrats, liberals see an equal opportunity this summer to mobilize the black vote by invoking Republican-led initiatives such as state voter ID laws, which Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, has said are modern-day versions of Jim Crow poll taxes.

Democratic Party officials say they have identified as many as 1.4 million unregistered black voters in five states where US Senate seats are hotly contested – a potential treasure trove that party leaders believe can stave off Republican victories. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is hiring field organizers for a $60 million get-out-the-vote campaign in those states – Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and, up north, Michigan. 

Of course, it won't be easy to produce a black-voter turnout rate that rivals that of the 2012 presidential election. Already, Democratic candidates such as Nunn and Senator Landrieu are tip-toeing through a minefield of racial politics. In appealing to white voters, for example, Landrieu has put out ads advocating changes to Obamacare. Those ads did not run, however, in black-majority New Orleans, to avoid insulting black voters who see the health-care law as the crowning legacy of America’s first black president.

Nunn, meanwhile, is working to come across as a moderate – so much so that at one debate a rival Democrat in the campaign, who is black, asked her if she is even a Democrat. (She said she is.)

One plus for Democrats in engaging minority voters is that Republican spokespeople, official and unofficial, sometimes come off as racially insensitive, or even outright racist.

For that reason and others, “it’s going to take a fundamental shift” for the GOP to make serious inroads with black voters, says Emory's Ms. Gillespie. “Republicans often decry identity politics, but they fail to realize that people use group identities to determine what’s actually good in their individual interest. If Republicans can acknowledge that … and embrace it – and also stop doing or saying racist things – you might be talking about a much more competitive Republican Party.”

Republican operatives acknowledge that winning black support is a long-term project. But they say a $60 million ground campaign is under way for this election cycle, and they argue that it could bear fruit as early as November.

“At this stage in the game, no one can take black voters for granted,” says RNC strategist Tara Wall, who is black.

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