Senate Democrats Can’t Win Without Black Votes

Charles D. Ellison
Voters in the presidential election Nov. 4, 2008, in Birmingham, Ala.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you are unaware of a congressional midterm election this year, you may very well wake up the morning of Nov. 5 and slam “WTF” into your Twitter feed. Also sad will be the quizzical looks of other black voters upon learning that they were crucial to the nation’s electoral fate. The exit polling will inevitably show that it was the black vote (or lack thereof) that determined whether Democrats kept the Senate in 2014.   

Folks, this isn’t your typical, get-out-the-vote public service announcement. It’s not a smoke-blowing jingle from your friendly neighborhood NAACP chapter. 

In 2014, it’s real. Stakes are high. Black voters will be the definitive difference between the government-shutdown gridlock we’ve had to tolerate and the epically disastrous, can’t-get-anything-done gridlock we will have with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress. Despite all the hype about Latino voters and the snarky pundits snorting at black-electorate value, the numbers show that black-voter turnout can save Democrats in 2014.


The math is quite simple: There is a total of 13 Senate seats that are either very tight or somewhat competitive in 2014. Eight out of those 13 states have black populations at 4 percent or more, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimates—including four at 15 percent or more. They include Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky.  

Even though six of those eight states with significant pockets of black populations broke for Mitt Romney in 2012, congressional midterm Senate races could be a completely different ball game, considering that voter turnout is generally low during the dreaded “off cycles.” But turnouts are usually lowest for Democrats. Thus, the candidate able to fill a margin with voters who are unlikely to vote during a midterm is that much closer to the finish line.


For the most part, Democratic-leaning black voters typically sit out midterms for any number of reasons: Either they don’t care about the candidate or they’re exhausted from the last election. Or: Midterms showcase candidates who score low on the social-celebrity scale. Hence, if you didn’t show up on Oprah’s network, have a hit reality show or sell a million copies within five days of an album-release date, you’re lucky if a hundred people show up at your campaign-announcement rally. 

Democrats need a game changer this round—or they lose their slim 51-seat majority. They currently hold five out of seven open seats and 80 percent of the most competitive seats. They need shifts in states like North Carolina to protect Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.)—even though the state went for Romney by two points in 2012. Still, two points was very narrow for a reliably red Tar Heel state. Observers noted that African Americans—constituting 22 percent of the population—were responsible for nearly tilting that state to President Obama with a 78.7 percent statewide turnout rate.


That kind of turnout rate can make a Republican-held state like Kentucky a sudden toss-up. Even though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has held the Bluegrass State with an iron grip since 1985, Democrats (the Clintons especially) are placing heavy bets on his Democratic challenger, current Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. It’s a state with a population that’s more than 8 percent black and had a 2012 African-American turnout rate of nearly 60 percent. Strategists wonder: What if it were 70 percent or higher? And what happens if you can build a coalition of poor, working-class whites and energized black voters?    

Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor should bank on that in Arkansas, where, despite its red tint, 16 percent of the population is black. Still, fewer than 50 percent of registered black voters came out for the general election in 2012. That’s a grim number at first glance. But for a crack strategist looking to up the ante against formidable GOP young gun Rep. Tom Cotton, that presents an opportunity to chase the other 50 percent—along with poor whites in a state with a nearly 20 percent poverty rate. 


The same goes for Georgia, with its 31 percent black population and 62 percent black-voter turnout rate. Credible contender and Democrat Michelle Nunn (daughter of former Senate heavyweight and brand name Sam Nunn) can actually pull this thing off against Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss by simply going all in with a black-voter population that’s 13 percent of all registered voters in the state. Ditto for Louisiana, where endangered Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu will desperately need black voters to fight off a GOP assault spearheaded by the state’s Republican governor and potential 2016 entrant, Bobby Jindal.

The catch, however, is the ability of Democrats to harness black-voter energy during a usually flat congressional midterm cycle. What’s the message? Congressional Democrats and the Obama White House are working on that with a new and aggressive discussion about poverty (marked by the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty). Senate Democrats want to make greater use of Obama’s time, presumably in an effort to find untapped pockets of black-voter support in these states while the White House is making noise about everything from unemployment benefits to Promise Zone initiatives (which is strange, considering the president spent a whole term sort of avoiding the word “poor”).  


Not that Republicans haven’t noticed, as they attempt to shake things up with their own brand of stale and disingenuous talking points on poverty. Also, there’s no surprise when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) makes a sudden visit to Detroit or when a young upstart black Republican, Ashley Bell of Georgia, announces a statewide run for state superintendent—at a time when Nunn can use all the black votes she can get. It’s not like the GOP expects a surge of new black votes. But Republicans do hope they can block Democrats just enough to clear a path back to a Senate majority on Nov. 4.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.


Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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