After the 2008 election of Barack Obama, pundits proclaimed that elections are "post-racial. " But race may have disappeared as an overt issue, only to be replaced by ideological attacks that mask subtle racial cues. The article examines the role of ideology in five African American congressional campaigns. There is a connection between how an African American votes in Congress and how well he or she performs in an election for statewide office. Being labeled "too liberal" may be the new code word in attacks on African-American candidates for governor or senator. More moderate African American candidates came closer to winning statewide office. Yet in these close contests, overt racial attacks were employed, showing that racism has not been completely omitted from recent elections.
Even prior to the historic 2008 election, there has been interest in African American candidates for higher office. "Black elected officials receive greater notoriety because their probability of attaining high office is greater than it has been for any generation of Blacks in the United States (Gillespie, 201 Ob)." The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (2009) finds that "while there has been little recent change in the number of African Americans elected to statewide office, by the end of the period (2002-2007), more black elected officials (BEOs) in statewide office were in higher ranked positions." Yet only six African Americans have ever won a U.S. Senate seat or gubernatorial race.
Most studies on the subject focus on factors ranging from voting behavior of the electorate to "white-backlash" (Hagen, 1995; Highton, 2004). Others cover structural factors, including electoral dynamics and strategies of the candidates (Sonenshein, 1990). Much less has been focused on a shift from "race" to "ideology" or a candidate's voting record, where overt racial attacks have been mostly replaced by subtle attacks on African-Americans as being "too liberal" for higher office like governor and the U.S. Senate.
After reviewing several campaigns in the literature (Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, California Governor candidate Tom Bradley, Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, North Carolina Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, New York Governor candidate Carl McCall and Texas Senate candidate Ron Kirk) for the emerging role of ideology in voting records in attempts to run deracial campaigns, I examine five additional elections featuring African American members of the U.S. House of Representatives who sought statewide office: Alan Wheat of Missouri in the 1994 U.S. Senate race, Cleo Fields in the 1995 Louisiana Governor's race, William Jefferson in the 1999 Louisiana Governor's race, Denise Majette of Georgia in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, and Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee in the 2006 U.S. Senate race. With the exception of Ford, these cases received less coverage in the literature. Each candidate was accused of being "too liberal" to represent a state in the U.S. Senate or in a governor's mansion. Their voting ideologies are compared to their electoral outcomes to determine if there is a connection between both factors. Additionally, I examine years of congressional experience, the state's African American population percentage, the type of office sought, whether the African American candidate or opponent in the general election faced primary opposition, whether the opponent had run for statewide office before, the year of the election, and how well the party did in the last election to see if they play a greater impact upon the electoral outcome than a candidate's congressional voting record.
The Importance Of Ideology For African Americans In Statewide Elections
African American candidates have made gains in elections since the 1950s and 1960s. But despite the impressive 2004 Illinois Senate victory and 2008 Presidential election triumph by Barack Obama, the number of African Americans who prevail in gubernatorial and senate elections remains scant (Jeffries and Jones, 2006). On the eve of Barack Obama's 2012 reelection, only one African American was governor (Deval Patrick) and no African Americans were in the U.S. Senate (though in 2013 Cory Booker won a special election to the U.S. Senate in New Jersey and Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to an open South Carolina seat).
Why do African American candidates, many with impressive resumes of political experience, come up short in statewide elections? The answer may come from the first African American to be elected governor since the Reconstruction Era. When L. Douglas Wilder, then a legislator, ran for Lt. Governor before his historic victory in 1989, his opponent derided him as a liberal. "This prompted] Wilder to argue that the word liberal was being used as a code word for Black (Jeffries, 2002, p. 688)."
This article examines whether opponents are making the claim that African American candidates are "too liberal" to hold statewide office. Many of today's voters are less likely to be swayed by overt racist attacks. But opponents of African American candidates for statewide office employ cues that subtly connect liberalism to race. This could be another example of the "implicit racial priming" that Mendelberg (2001) wrote about, where subtle cues, rather than overt attacks, are employed.
This does not mean that race is absent from attacks on African-Americans for being liberal. It means linking support for tax-and-spend policies to "redistribution" of resources from whites to blacks in the form of welfare. "Too liberal" on crime may reflect naivete on the part of a white candidate, but for a black candidate, it means a deliberate policy of letting African American criminals go. Liberalism means tying an opponent to support for Affirmative Action, even if the candidate does not support such a policy. For African American candidates, "liberal" does not mean being an myopic "do-gooder" as it might be used for a white candidate. It means an African American is using congressional votes to look out only for his or her race.
Turner and Jeffries (2010) contend "black candidates for high-profile statewide office should avoid those issues that can be racially construed ... Issues like Affirmative Action and welfare are racially charged issues that have the capacity to polarize the electorate (p. 83)." When an African American candidate has a verifiable liberal voting record, then it is more difficult to adopt a moderate platform, or insist that the "too liberal" charges are not true or favoritism is not being employed.
When an African American candidate is able to overcome accusations of being a liberal by crafting a moderate voting record, he or she is able to get more support from voters. But in these cases, the white opponent or that person's party may then adopt overt racial attacks to prevent defeat. They are gambling that voters will overlook the blatant racism in their message and gamer a narrow win.
To determine whether African American candidates have very liberal voting records or not that could be targeted by opponents, I look at those seeking statewide office who have served in Congress, where political organizations have rated votes in the House of Representatives as liberal or conservative. I also look at other studies of African American candidates who did not serve in Congress to see if "liberal" voting cues were employed against them, or if such candidates could craft a "moderate" campaign to effectively neutralize those charges.
Why Not Always Use Overt Racial Attacks?
While the media tends to hype the race factor in statewide contests (Jeffries, 2002), there are signs that racism itself is dropping as a significant factor in such electoral battles (Keeter & Samaranayake, 2007). Highton (2004) writes "Despite theoretical expectations that predict the existence of white voter discrimination against African American candidates, remarkably little is apparent (p. 1)." And Hagen (1995) discovers "Explicitly racial issues have declined in accessibility over the past 30 years ... (p. 49)." Gamble (2010) contends that some white voters use racial bias as a voting cue. But she also writes "However, recent elections and studies indicate that racial bias in voting may be fading (Gamble, 2010, p. 302)."
The success of a few African Americans statewide supports the notion that racial crossover appeal is possible (Bullock, 1984; Frederick & Jeffries, 2009; Gillespie, 2010a). Yet African Americans are still losing in races for the U.S. Senate and state governor's offices, despite the increase in candidacies and the potentially dwindling presence of racism in voting behavior. Why is this happening?
Liberal Voting: The New Racial Cue? Evidence From The Literature
The scholarly literature seems to recognize that overt racial attacks are lessening in use and effectiveness. But covert attacks on the race of African American candidates may be happening. In fact, former Governor Wilder may have been on to something when he faulted his opponent for using the word "liberal" as a racial code word. And in-depth studies of African American candidates for statewide office have revealed that one's voting record serves as a subtle way of injecting race into a campaign.
Sonenshein (1990, p. 225) argues that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was a strong candidate for California Governor in 1982, obtaining support from the business community. Yet his support for Proposition 15 (handgun regulation) allowed his Republican opponent (George Deukmejian) to brand Bradley as soft-on-crime liberal (Sonenshein, 1990, p. 227), even though this L.A. Mayor was a former police officer (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 209; Turner & Jeffries, 2010, p. 94; Lewis, 2010, p. 185). Deukmejian's tactics worked, as "an early poll showed that 40 percent of voters saw Bradley as a liberal (Sonenshein, 1990, p. 234)."
But other African-American candidates were able to prevail at the statewide level by avoiding the "soft-on-crime" concerns as well as the liberal label. Massachusetts Senate candidate Edward Brooke was his state's Attorney General who supported the death penalty, unlike his opponent (Sonenshein, 1990, p. 230). Brooke also investigated and indicted nearly 100 public officials for corruption (Jeffries, 1999, p. 586). Governor Wilder had a "stellar military career" (Jeffries, 1999, p. 586).
Jeffries (1999) writes "Both Brooke and Wilder contended that black candidates should emphasize those issues that transcend race and appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate, like the economy, education, transportation, abortion, health care and the environment (p. 586)." Both sought alternative solutions to welfare (Jeffries, 1999, p. 586).
But not all attempts at a moderate platform are so successful. Strickland and Whicker (1992) compare Wilder's successful 1989 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia to Harvey Gantt's failed bid to unseat North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms the following year, and finds similar support for the argument about ideology. In Virginia, "Coleman's media advisers attempted somewhat less successfully to paint Wilder as a closet liberal who was weak on crime (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 206)." But Wilder crafted an image of being a fiscal conservative (Strickland & Whicker, 1992,209) who deemphasized racial issues (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 208). Wilder even used the abortion issue to appeal to moderate Republican women, choosing an issue over race-based appeals (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 210).
Former Charlotte Mayor Gantt "tried to appeal to racial tolerance by adopting a moderate message... [He] tried to appeal to everyone by stressing issues like the environment and education" (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 210). Gantt looked like he might upset Senator Jesse Helms. As a result, he experienced racist attacks by Senator Helms, which included ads that accused the former Charlotte Mayor of (a) being a racial quota supporter, (b) running different ads on black radio stations, and (c) not supporting the death penalty for those who beat and rape women (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 206). "Senator Jesse Helms heralded himself as possessing 'North Carolina values' and labeled Harvey Gantt as the possessor of 'extremely Liberal values (Strickland & Whicker, 1992, p. 205).'"
In other words, even when an African American candidate tries to emphasize issues that appeal to everyone, opponents will try to use race against him or her coupled with attacks on liberalism. Helms ran ads showing a white man with a pink slip while a narrator explains that the man didn't get the job because he was passed over for an African American. Even if Gantt didn't run as a pro-Affirmative Action candidate, his liberal voting record was used to connect votes expanding the government to charges that such policies hurt whites.
Other studies of African American candidates for statewide office found liberalism is used as a subtle tool to encourage whites not to vote for a black candidate. African American candidates "... must neutralize the liberal stereotype, be viewed as a political moderate ... He or she must have a flexible and deracialized campaign strategy" argue Frederick & Jeffries (2009,695), who look at the candidacies of H. Carl McCall, the New York State Comptroller who ran for Governor in 2002, as well as Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas that same year. Both are considered to have run "deracialized" campaigns, with strong ties to the business community (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009). Yet the ideology of the candidates seems to have played an important factor in both elections.
In the case of Carl McCall, while New York Governor George Pataki used "seemingly non-racial negative attack ads," this Republican incumbent chose to attack his opponent's record on taxes in the state legislature, and his support for the "commuter tax (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009, p. 701)." Pataki painted McCall as a tax-and-spend liberal.
In the case of Kirk, race played a slightly greater role, as Democrats touted the Dallas Mayor as part of a multiracial "Dream Team" (with Hispanic and white candidates on the ticket). His opponent, state Attorney General John Cornyn derided the "racial quotas" for candidates (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009, p. 709). Some of Kirk's prior positions on slavery, judicial testimony, affirmative action in education, and the Iraq War were tied to race as well (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009). But by and large, Kirk's ideology seemed to be the dominant issue of this 2002 election, with Kirk's liberalism put under attack.
"Cornyn was able to use several issues to paint Kirk as left-of-center, if not outright liberal," Frederick and Jeffries (2009,710) argue. They document how Cornyn linked Kirk to New York Senator Hillary Clinton, highlighted Kirk's opposition to a flag burning amendment, and called attention to Kirk's endorsement by an antimilitary group (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009, p. 712). This benefited Cornyn, since only 12% of Texans considered themselves liberal (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009).
The attempts to portray McCall and Kirk as liberals seemed to be a successful strategy for both Republicans. McCall lost his battle by 16 points and Kirk fell by 12 points. But despite the ability of both to run campaigns appealing to all races, attacks on liberalism seemed to have trumped these "moderate appeals." As Frederick and Jeffries (2009, p. 715) conclude "The findings demonstrate the difficulties faced by African American candidates for high-profile statewide office. They cannot make direct appeals to their traditional constituencies of ethnic and liberal voters without alienating a large bloc of voters. They must also appear conservative, but not so conservative as to demobilize their supporters while at the same time fending off the 'liberal democrat' stereotype."
Scholars clearly detected a need for African American candidates to adopt a moderate message to win statewide office. But up until now, no one had been able to document with any quantitative evidence whether this is the case. In the next section, I do just that, examining how an African American candidate's voting record can be used to attack the politician for being a "liberal" in a new coded form of a racial attack. For those with a moderate record who could use the voting record to dispel such charges, overt racial attacks would be employed against African American candidates for higher office.
The Measure of Political Moderation
These scholarly studies agree that being a political moderate is important for African American candidates in statewide races. The problem is how to determine the measure of political moderation. After all, if Downs' (1957) analysis is correct and voter attitudes are normally distributed, it makes sense to label oneself a moderate to capture a majority of the electorate. That is why candidates from both parties seek to portray themselves as centrists and their opponents as extremists. The "deracial moderate" theory therefore is the more moderate an African American member of Congress is, the greater the chance he or she will win a statewide election.
So how can we measure a candidate's ideological voting record? Party is not an adequate substitute for one's voting record (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009). Problems also exist with the employment of exit polls as a data source (Strickland & Whicker, 1992). Even attempts to rely on news reports (Frederick & Jeffries, 2009) to determine their ideology have their flaws, primarily due to bias (Jeffries, 2002). In addition, there are times where a candidate claims that he or she is running a deracialized campaign, but does not do so (Gillespie, 2010c, p. 69).
To overcome these flaws, a separate measure of ideology should be used. Data is employed on voting ideologies compiled by the American Conservative Union (ACU). The ACU is employed because it (1) rates all House and Senate members from 1971 to 2008, (2) is employed by candidates, political scientists, and the media (American Conservative Union, 2009), and (3) is a rough inverse to the more liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Roughly 20-25 voting issues in a year are examined. The ACU determines which vote would be a conservative one, and then assigns a score with a zero being the lowest score (most liberal) and 100 being the highest score (most conservative), according to this scale (ACU, 2009). The ACU makes sense to use in this study because it is often that a conservative will make the judgment that an African American candidate is too liberal based upon these scores. They are not especially weighted against African Americans, however, as Barack Obama was judged to have a similar voting record to Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate.
The voting ideologies and electoral performance of five members of the US House of Representatives who sought a major statewide office are then analyzed. Then their ACU scores are compared to their electoral margin in those contests, to determine if such a relationship exists between ideology and performance. More moderate African American members of Congress are expected to do better in statewide contests, but then these congressional moderates would be more likely to face overt racial attacks.
African American Congressional Candidates For Statewide Office
Congressman Alan Wheat, U.S. Senate, Missouri, 1994
A former state legislator, Congressman Wheat won a majority-white Kansas City district in 1982 with 58 percent of the vote (Swain, 1993). On the powerful House Rules Committee, Wheat balanced his work between both races he served. He even made it possible for whites to join the Congressional Black Caucus as associate members. "The only label I'd accept is Democrat," he once said (Sawyer, 1994).
However, Wheat was trounced in his bid for an open Senate seat by John Ashcroft, in 1994. He won a bruising primary (which depleted his campaign funds) and faced a popular two-term GOP governor (Berke, 1994). Wheat's liberal voting record may have led tohis 24 point loss in the polls. The American Conservative Union's lifetime score for this six-term congressman was a mere 0.83 out of a possible 100, the lowest average for any representative analyzed in this survey.
Congressman Cleo Fields, Governor, Louisiana, 1995
Cleo Fields was a trailblazer, winning a seat in the state senate when he was 24 and a congressional race at age 30 (Sack, 1995a). In the governor's open primary, he finished second, ahead of a former governor, the Lt. Governor, and State Treasurer, to face state legislator Murphy J. "Mike" Foster in the runoff (Sack, 1995a).
Against the party-switching Republican businessman, Fields sought a campaign strategy that appealed to whites and blacks. Though he supported affirmative action, he also called for more help for education and job training for those on welfare (Sack, 1995a). "A man walking down the street at 5 o'clock at night with a pink slip in his hand is not black or white," Fields said. "That man is unemployed and needs a job. Kids who are in classrooms and don't have proper school supplies, they're not black or white kids. They're kids who need help (Sack, 1995a)." Clearly, Fields sought a deracial electoral strategy that would appeal to whites and blacks, and not just African Americans. It should have been enough to present himself to voters as a moderate.
Congressman Fields attacked Foster for failing to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and for calling New Orleans "a jungle." But Foster responded by turning the issue from race to an ideological voting record. "Why get mad at a guy who says you're the true conservative in the race?" said Foster, who had switched parties a month before the primary (Sack, 1995a).
Critics of Fields' campaign focused more on his voting record than his skin color. Despite the support of Vice-President Al Gore, most state Democrats refused to endorse him. Fields'ACU score of 7.67 out of 100 gave Republicans all of the ammunition they would need. "'He's very liberal' said Baton Rouge pollster Bemie R. Pinsonat (Sack, 1995b). Even though Fields lost by 28 points, Democrats won the Lt. Governor, State Treasurer position, and the state legislature (Sack, 1995b).
Congressman William Jefferson, Governor, Louisiana, 1999
Four years after Fields' loss, it was Congressman William Jefferson's turn. The first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Louisiana since Reconstruction ("Foster Reelected," October 24,1999; Burbank, 2006), Jefferson won many subsequent elections uncontested (Burbank, 2006).
"Early in his career, Jefferson ranked among the most impressive African American politicians of his generation, one who possessed a strong appeal to whites as well as blacks," writes Berry (2008). He quotes Baton Rouge Advocate editorial writer Lanny Keller as saying "We thought he would become our first black governor--he had it all (Berry, 2008)."
But it was a different story when he challenged Republican Governor Mike Foster in 1999. Like Fields, Jefferson highlighted Foster's purchase a list of Duke's supporters, and then his $20,000 fine for failing to disclose that purchase on his campaign report ("Louisiana Votes," October 23, 1999; "Foster Reelected," October 24, 1999). Foster brushed off the ethical case as a "non-issue ("Foster Reelected," October 24, 1999)" and the election shifted to the subject of education.
Jefferson, heavily backed by President Bill Clinton, focused much of his attention on air conditioning for schools, literacy for all children reaching third grade, and an increase in teacher pay to meet the Southern average ("Louisiana Votes," October 23, 1999). "Louisiana is last on the things that we ought to be first on, and first on the things we ought to be last on. We can do better than this," Jefferson said ("Louisiana Votes," October 23, 1999). Foster responded by claiming he was the first governor in 30 years to preside over three straight teacher raises in the Louisiana legislature ("Foster Reelected," October 24, 1999).
But what really undermined Jefferson was the inability to shake the label of being "a liberal." His ACU voting score was 7.44 out of a possible 100, which was similar to Fields' liberal score. This may have contributed to his 2:1 lopsided loss to Governor Foster.
Congresswoman Denise Majette, U.S. Senate, Georgia, 2004
In her political career, Georgia State Court Judge Denise Majette pulled off a series of stunning upsets. After knocking off Representative Cynthia McKinney, she defeated millionaire businessman Cliff Oxford to secure the Democratic Party nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat with a "low-key grassroots strategy (Pettys, 2004a)."
She then faced Congressman Johnny Isakson, who had name recognition from several statewide races. Attempting a deracial strategy, Congresswoman Majette focused upon Head Start funding, caring for the needs of soldiers returning from Iraq (Cox, 2004; Basinger, 2004a), and a national lottery for school funding, modeled after Georgia's popular state lottery (Basinger, 2004b). Yet Isakson's fundraising advantages and familiarity with voters gave him an early advantage ("Making History," August 11,2004). Majette attacked Isakson's proposal for a national sales tax (Pettys, 2004b), focusing on how much it would cost Georgians rather than how much it would hurt the poor (a traditional liberal approach). She also supported President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act, accusing Congressman Isakson of not fully funding the program.
Most post-electoral analyses of Majette's 18 point loss to Isakson focused upon Majette's lack of funds, her lack of name recognition, and Bush's strong reelection numbers in Georgia (Pettys, 2004c). But her voting record came back to haunt her. Basinger (2004a) reported that Isakson's campaign "suggested Wednesday that Ms. Majette's plan [to help veterans] is an effort to cover up her House voting record on military spending." Though she campaigned as a centrist, she voted as a liberal in Congress, with an ACU score of "4" (with zero being "most liberal").
Congressman Harold Ford Jr., U.S. Senate, Tennessee, 2006
All of the prior cases in this study saw representatives campaigning like moderates, but voting as liberals. Harold Ford Jr., on the other hand, sported an ACU score of "20" of a possible 100, which in a Congress of few moderates is considered somewhat centrist. He voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, the Iraq War, Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, and some of the pro-life agenda, adopting more liberal stands on the death penalty, health care and the environment ("Key Votes," 2006). This "Blue Dog Democrat" (a moderate Southern Democrat group) then ran for an open Senate seat in Tennessee in 2006.
Ford was virtually unopposed, while Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker struggled in his GOP primary. Polls showed a close contest. Then the national GOP adopted race as a strategy, playing on Southern racial politics of the fear and loathing of black men with white women to combat Ford's moderate record. A "dumb blonde" appeared in an ad claiming to have met Congressman Ford at a Playboy party, then winked at the camera and said "Harold ... call me!" (Johnson, 2006). The NAACP, and even Corker condemned the commercial, while others harkened back to the days of the GOP's "Southern Strategy (Johnson, 2006)." Though it was pulled after a day (O'Donnell, 2006), media critics implied that the racist ad handed Corker the election.
Polls throughout the contest showed the two candidates trading the lead several times. But Ford's moderate voting record helped him come within three percentage point of winning a Republican seat. In commenting on the election, Sekou Franklin (2010) writes "Race still mattered, though less in 2006 than in 1990 (p. 235)."
A Discussion of the Findings
There is some relationship between one's voting ideology and success in statewide races for an African American member of the U.S. House of Representatives (see table 1 and figure 1). Findings do demonstrate support for the deracial moderate theory which says that an African American representative with a more moderate voting record will lead to the greater electoral success in pursuit of a statewide office.
It is noteworthy that the two contests for Governor revealed an even wider disparity in the electoral margin that the three candidates for the U.S. Senate. Sonenshein (1990, p. 230) contends that Brooke and Wilder won their initial races because they were non-gubernatorial, and thus "less threatening" to whites. The same cannot be said of U.S. Senate seats, where the winner would be one of two representing the state, serving in a body of 100 others, so the fear of "losing control" is not so great.
One's voting record also does a better job of explaining one's electoral margin than other factors, like years of congressional experience (see figure 2) or the state's African American percentage of the population (see figure 3). In both figures, the rival factor is unrelated to the margin of defeat. For example, Congressmen Wheat, Jefferson and Ford should have had the narrowest margin of victory, but Wheat and Jefferson had two of the three worst performances at the ballot box.
The states with the highest African American population (Louisiana and Georgia) should have provided Fields, Jefferson and Majette with the best results, but they did not (see figure 3). Instead, Ford did the best in a state with the one of the lowest percentages of African Americans in its population in this survey.
Additionally, the margin of defeat is not as well explained by other variables, like whether or not the African American Representative's opponent had run a statewide election before (Ashcroft in 1994, Foster in 1999, Isakson in 2004), whether the GOP opponent faced primary opposition (as Foster in 1995, Isakson in 2004 and Corker in 2006 did), whether the African American representative faced significant Democratic Primary opposition (as Congressman Wheat, Fields and Congresswoman Majette did), or whether Democrats had captured the state in the last presidential election (which happened in Missouri in 1992, Louisiana in 1992 and again in 1996). None of these six rival factors can explain the margin of defeat as well as a candidate's ideology, as measured by voting record.
Another factor that could be examined for signs of bias is the year of the election. Some may contend that the year of the election may have something to do with margin of victory. Did Congressman Wheat lose by such a wide margin because 1994 was a bad year for Democrats? Similarly, could Harold Ford's close margin of victory in 2006 be attributed to benefiting from a favorable year for Democrats?
The answer is not as clear as one might think. In addition to Ford's strong showing, Deval Patrick became the first African American Governor of Massachusetts in 2006 (Lewis, 2010). Patrick was even reelected in 2010, a bad year for Democrats. But state legislator Erik Fleming could not defeat Mississippi Senator Trent Lott (Jeffries & Jones, 2010) in 2006. Some may say that Fleming had little chance of success, but six GOP Senate incumbents were upset in 2006, some in states that voted twice for Bush: Virginia, Montana, and Missouri.
Congressman Wheat (highly touted by Newsweek, and having a much stronger record of experience than perhaps any of the candidates examined) was hammered by Governor John Ashcroft in 1994 in an open seat contest for the U.S. Senate. Yet that same year, little-known Ron Sims (a three-term King County Councilman) did much better against a two-term Republican Senate incumbent. "Despite having a significantly weaker record than Gorton and lower name recognition, Sims put up a strong showing (Jeffries and Jones, 2010)." When it comes to the year analyzed, it should be examined on a case-by-case basis. The year is not a stronger factor than one's voting record in determining an African American candidate's margin of defeat in statewide office.
With the election of Barack Obama, analyses of voting for African American candidates are likely to slowly shift away from race as the key defining issue. Early indications show that one's ideological voting record may have moved to the forefront of elections when an African American candidate is on the statewide ballot.
This does not mean that race has disappeared as a factor when African Americans are running for higher office. For most of these contests, "code words" are employed (Hagen, 1995) where race covertly becomes a factor. The African American candidate for governor or senator is accused of being a liberal, either a supporter of Affirmative Action, welfare, or a soft-on-crime policy. This is designed to make the voter think that the candidate is only looking out for "black" interests.
African American candidates for statewide office who can craft a moderate voting record are able to neutralize those liberal charges. In such cases, a desperate opponent or rival party may resort to overt racial attacks, to win, hoping that voters will not punish them for such divisive ads or claims.
Perhaps such attacks, whether covert (liberal) or over (explicitly racial) will have less of an effect on African American candidates for statewide office, as voters see through such tactics. An ad that hinted at race in the context of crime backfired against the Republicans in the Massachusetts Governor race against Deval Patrick in 2006 (Page, 2006; Lewis, 2010). Similarly, House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked President Barack Obama as "the food stamp president (Walsh, 2011)," but only won two states in the primary.
With more African Americans who have served in the U.S. House of Representatives taking a look at gubernatorial or senatorial contests, scholars will be able to conduct a more in-depth test of the role of ideology. As Angela K. Lewis (2010) notes "As more Blacks run for high profile offices, we should be able to have enough data points to operationalize these factors and test for statistical relationships (p. 191)." Then we will be able to see if opponents of African Americans continue to make any headway using ideological attacks on a "liberal" voting record as a subtle racial code word, and whether African American candidates can defuse such an attack with a more moderate voting record. But these African American moderates should be prepared for a racist attack as they close the gap or take the lead against an opponent.
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John A. Tures is a Professor of Political Science at LaGrange College in Georgia. He earned his Ph.D. from Florida State University in 2000. He has published in the Journal of Peace Research, International Studies Quarterly, East European Quarterly. The Middle East Journal, Journal of International and Area Studies. Journal of American Studies, Asian Politics & Policy, Homeland Security Affairs Journal, Digest of Middle East Studies, Homeland Security Review, Review of Higher Education and Self-Learning, Journal of Conflict, Security and Development, The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Arab Reform Bulletin, and the Forum on Public Policy.
Table 1 : African American Congressional Candidates, Ideology, & Electoral Margins Candidate Year ACU Lifetime Electoral Margin Wheat 1994 0.83 -24.1 Fields 1995 7.67 -28 Jefferson 1999 7.44 -32 Majette 2004 4 -18 Ford 2006 20 -3 AVG 7.988 -21.02