Don't Think Black Voters Won't Vote for McCain

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So my home state of Pennsylvania handed Hillary Clinton a win and a reason to keep fighting to be the Democratic nominee. As I write, Terry McCauliffe is probably on CNN pleading his candidate's case, facts about her low delegate and popular vote counts be damned.

But before Democratic superdelegates get too itchy to snuff the Obama campaign, they should consider the new animal that move might spawn: the Obama Republican.

I know: the notion of black folks and young folks and progressive white folks abandoning the Democrats en masse if the Wife of Bill is the nominee ain't exactly new; Right here on The Root, the writer William Jelani Cobb espoused a McCain protest vote in November, and has since accepted a ticket to Denver as a Democratic delegate in August. But that makes the threat no less real. Any Democratic honcho needing a lesson in the power of disaffected black voters need only Google "2002 and Clarence Mitchell IV."

Mitchell's name probably won't ring any bells nationally during a presidential election cycle, but Maryland's establishment Democrats probably still cringe at its mention. A scion of Maryland's most significant civil rights clan, in 2001 Mitchell held a state Senate seat in West Baltimore that had all but belonged to his family for years. But Mitchell, nicknamed 'C4', wasn't good at playing go-along-get-along with party bigwigs.

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This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

Clarence Mitchell IV

Dissatisfied with entrenched politicking, Mitchell threatened to switch his party affiliation – not a backbreaker but certainly an embarrassment to a party that for 40 years had a lock on the statehouse and black voters.

Mitchell's antics didn't help him when newspaper articles led to an ethics investigation of some of his business dealings. He was never charged with a crime, but was nonetheless censured by the Democratic-controlled legislature. When he was up next for re-election, he lost his seat to an establishment-backed candidate. His career in Maryland politics was supposed to have been extinguished, but he had an ace in the hole.

When the 2002 gubernatorial election came along, Mitchell used the occasion to raise his middle finger once more at party bosses. Kathleen Kennedy (yes those Kennedys) Townsend was the Democratic candidate, a two-term lieutenant governor who should have mopped the floor with the Republican nominee, Bob Ehrlich, at the time a four-term congresman. But she had to contend with a deep disaffection and resentment among the state's black Democrats.

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Ehrlich tapped Michael Steele, a black Republican businessman from well-heeled, very-black Prince George's County as his running mate. Then he engaged Mitchell to help him woo pissed-off black Baltimore Dems. T-shirts, signs, and bumper-stickers with a not-so-subtle message began to dot some black Baltimore neighborhoods. They read "Steele Democrat", a coy double-entendre that was both the rallying cry for Mitchell's effort to drive black voters into the GOP camp and a thumbing of the nose at the Democratic establishment that had displaced him.

The same establishment allowed Townsend to commit the fatal gaffe of picking a white, career Republican as her running mate in a state brimming with young, progressive black voters. Ehrlich and Steele won 51.5 percent to 47.6 percent, carrying a higher percentage of black votes than any Republican candidate in a statewide race in recent, if not recorded, history.

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Steele, staunchly GOP, became something Democrats had never even envisioned: the state's first black lieutenant governor.

Fast forward six years. Barack Obama is no Clarence Mitchell IV, threatening to burn the party down if he loses. Nor is Hillary Clinton a Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, susceptible to political miscalculation on a grand scale and aloof enough on the stump to mistake the name of one black college for another.

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Still, parallels exist that should worry Democratic strategists come November. Some Pennsylvania exit polls suggest that a small but significant number of Obama supporters would still rather stay home or vote elephant if Hills gets the nod. And though we can presume Obama would do his best to get his supporters marching lockstep with Clinton if she is the nominee, you can bet some operative is already in the wings with "Obama Republican" shirts, signs, and bumper stickers to hand out.

Anyone got C4's number?

Keith Reed is a writer living in Ohio.

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