Southern Democrats Walk a Tightrope With Black Voters

   < < Go Back
from The Wall Street Journal,

Senate Hopefuls Try to Appeal to Key Constituency While Keeping President at Arm’s Length.

In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu says President Barack Obama ’s energy policies are “simply wrong.” In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan has criticized the administration’s handling of veterans’ benefits. And in Georgia, Senate candidate Michelle Nunn won’t say whether she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act.

These Democrats, like others running in races across the country, are trying to distance themselves from a president who is deeply unpopular among white voters. But if they have any hopes of winning, they also must try to lock down the voters most loyal to Mr. Obama : African-Americans.

How Southern Democrats walk this tightrope will help determine whether their party maintains control of the Senate. Sens. Landrieu, Hagan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are among the party’s last lines of defense in a region that has become a Republican stronghold. Ms. Nunn’s contest is one of the party’s few chances to gain a Senate seat now held by the GOP.

Republicans need to net six seats to win a Senate majority. African-Americans make up roughly 30% of the voting rolls in Georgia and Louisiana and 22% in North Carolina. Black voters are a smaller but sizable constituency in Arkansas.

Tharon Johnson, a co-chairman of the Democratic campaign in Georgia and regional director for Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign, describes the party’s delicate balancing act like this: “We’re going to mobilize that core Obama coalition, but without Obama.”

On Monday, the last day to register to vote for the Nov. 4 election in Georgia, black elected officials and pastors, including Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil-rights movement, will hold a rally at the state capitol to urge voters to participate.

Three heavily African-American counties in Georgia also will offer early voting on a Sunday for the first time in the state’s history, an effort to get “souls to the polls” after church. Groups including the New Georgia Project are trying to parlay a massive migration of African-Americans from elsewhere in the U.S. into an army of newly registered voters.

In Louisiana, Ms. Landrieu is relying, in part, on her family’s high profile in the black community—brother Mitch Landrieu is the mayor of majority-black New Orleans, and father Moon Landrieu is the city’s former mayor and a civil-rights pioneer.

But when it comes to the first African-American president, Southern Democrats are keeping their distance. When Mr. Obama visited New Orleans last year, Ms. Landrieu rode with him on Air Force One but didn’t join him on the ground. After the White House said the president would travel to North Carolina in August, Ms. Hagan promptly criticized his oversight of veterans’ affairs, though she greeted him at the airport.

Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to drive Democrats back into Mr. Obama’s arms. Television spots hit Sens. Landrieu, Hagan and Pryor for voting for the Affordable Care Act and immigration-overhaul legislation. GOP ads also yoke Ms. Nunn to Mr. Obama, while her advertising features a Republican ex-president, George H.W. Bush.

Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who advised Mr. Obama’s campaigns, said these candidates are walking a “perilous line” by maintaining their distance. “Democrats run campaigns like we’re more afraid of pissing off voters who won’t vote for us anyway, than mobilizing voters who might,” he said.

More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):