Before Sen. Booker, There Was Sen. Brooke

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke was a black, liberal Republican when such a thing still existed.

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In 1978, Brooke met his defeat. During that last Senate campaign, he faced a Democratic congressman from Lowell named Paul Tsongas. In Brooke's first two campaigns, he had tugged on the heartstrings of Massachusetts voters. He told them that they were color-blind, that they were enlightened enough to elect a black senator. But in 1978, Tsongas turned the tables. "It is the other side of racism" to re-elect Brooke because of his race, said Tsongas. "After 12 years, that's enough for a symbol."

Brooke's challenge in 1978 neatly describes the dilemma that many black politicians have confronted in their quests for re-election. The first victory inevitably felt symbolic. Many white voters might have pulled the lever for an African American in order to prove to themselves -- and to the world -- that they were capable of such a breakthrough. But when the African-American candidate ran for re-election, something more was at stake. The voters had to pass judgment on the man and his ideas more than the idea of the man. Not only that, they also had to accept an African American as their leader and return him to the job.

The good news for Cory Booker is that white Americans have proved themselves capable of doing just this: The Bay State voters returned Deval Patrick to the governor's office in 2010, and of course, Americans backed President Obama for re-election in 2012. Next year, Booker will have to persuade the New Jersey electorate to do the same. Ed Brooke, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, will certainly be watching.

Jason Sokol is assistant professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights. He is also the author of The Northern Mystique: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn (Basic Books, forthcoming in 2014).

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