Now that Barack Obama has claimed the presidency, it's natural to wonder how and with whom he will govern. To pull America out of the multiple and mounting crises that it now confronts, he needs the House and Senate to be a well-oiled legislative machine. The fresh wave of Democratic candidates that surged into Congress this election is a good first sign that change is coming to Washington.
In January, Democrats will begin the 111th Congress with more members than any party has held in 14 years. And in many cases it was unprecedented minority turnout that bequeathed President-elect Barack Obama a Congress that will have his back.
Suffice it to say, history brought company. Black turnout on Tuesday was seismic; roughly 17 million—and counting—African Americans voters elevated their share of the electorate from 11 percent in 2004 to 13 percent this cycle. (All non-white voters made up 26 percent of the electorate, another record.) Obama won 96 percent of the black vote, banking almost the entire 17 million into his vote total of nearly 64 million votes—itself the highest ever in American presidential politics.
In the days before the election, a Florida GOP county chairman, worried about the energized black electorate, circulated a nasty e-mail to Republicans about "the threat" of "carloads of black Obama supporters coming from the inner city to cast their votes."
It was that enthusiasm that made the difference. Florida, where more than half a million black registered voters stayed home in 2004, went to Obama handily on the strength of the increase in black participation—22 percent of early voters were black, though they comprise only 13 percent of the state's voters. Similar turnout gains were reported in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
But blacks didn't run up the popular vote total just for Obama. North Carolina, where relatively unknown state legislator Kay Hagan ousted incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole by a healthy 8-point margin, is the biggest testament to the impact of increased black organizing and participation. Much of Hagan's support came from new voters and black voters—about a quarter of the state's population—voting Democratic straight down the ticket. The massive black registration and get-out-the-vote push from Team Obama—begun prior to an impressive primary win in early May and strengthened throughout the summer—proved enough to overcome the state's natural conservatism and seize the seat once held by Jesse Helms. It paid dividends in other ways: Two years ago, congressional candidate Larry Kissell lost to five-term Republican Robin Hayes by 329 votes in the 8th district; this year the uptick in Democratic voting gave Kissell a 10-point victory over Hayes.
Other races, particularly in southern states, followed the same trend. In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu had been called the "most vulnerable" Senate Democrat up for re-election. Yet as Democratic turnout projections became clearer (early voting, dominated by black voters, was at 169 percent of the 2004 total), she began to pull away. And though Democrats Donald Cazayoux, Bruce Lunsford and Ronnie Musgrove all lost, black Democratic votes gave each of them a fighting chance in heavily red states (Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi, respectively). Black turnout in Cincinnati helped flip the seat of longtime conservative congressman Steve Chabot, part of the GOP class of 1994, to Democrat Steve Driehaus. In Mississippi, freshman congressman Travis Childers held onto the seat he won in a special election in May—one of the early harbingers of the Democratic landslide of Tuesday night.
Another state to keep an eye on is Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss continues to fend off a strong Democratic challenge. Even though Chambliss is ahead of his Democratic opponent, Jim Martin, he won less than 50 percent of the vote and by Georgia law must face a runoff on Dec. 2 if those numbers hold. Paper ballots were still being counted. This would be the same Chambliss who, just days before the election, fretted to a white crowd that "the other folks are voting." He presumably meant black residents of Georgia—and he was absolutely right. Black participation dwarfed 2004 turnout numbers. By the Saturday before Election Day, some 31 percent of registered voters had already cast ballots—with black voters making up a majority of these votes. This was enough to put Martin within striking distance of the incumbent Chambliss.
The coattail effect cuts both ways. In Virginia, popular former governor and Senate candidate Mark Warner was able to help Obama further up the ballot in regions where he attracted moderate, predominantly white voters to the Democratic side. This, coupled with solid black turnout, especially around Richmond and in the Washington, D.C., exurbs, helped give Obama a clear 5-point margin of victory in a state that had not been carried by a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. Democrats also picked up two GOP House seats in military-heavy Virginia Beach and in the rapidly diversifying Fairfax County in northern Virginia.
In the West, minority participation also played a large role in delivering much-coveted Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada into the Obama column. Nearly 66 percent of Latinos supported Obama, cutting into John McCain's share of that vote compared with George W. Bush's; in 2004, Bush took two of every five Latino votes. Down ballot, this means that such long-serving conservatives as Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado and Rep. Jon Porter in Nevada are out. In New Mexico, all three of the state's congressional seats are suddenly blue.
The Democratic surge was clearly not limited to just black voters. In Montana, Vermont and Nebraska, where there are virtually no black voters, Democrats made an average gain of about 8 points over their 2004 performance. And it's unclear whether black turnout will remain as potent an electoral force past Obama's historic run. But in 2008, the impact of a 2 percent national increase in representation was significant and decisive.
What about the future? First, Tuesday's results mean that redistricting after the 2010 Census will benefit Democrats. Second, Obama's victory could shake the presumption that black politicians such as Artur Davis and Harold Ford Jr., rumored to be contemplating runs in Alabama and Tennessee, cannot win statewide races in the South.
Most importantly, by helping to cement the progressive congressional shift that began in 2006, especially in the Senate, minority voters may have improved the chances that Washington will actually get something done this time around.
Dayo Olopade is a regular contributor to The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.