As midterm season hits its final stretch, voter turnout is first on the minds of both Democrats and Republicans. The issue even seems to have the attention of the President, who made one of his most dramatic moves of election season this week.
On Monday, President Obama weighed in on Democratic Senate candidates in red states while speaking with Reverend Al Sharpton.
“The bottom line is though, these are all folks who have voted with me, they have supported my agenda in Congress. They are on the right side of minimum wage… fair pay… rebuilding our infrastructure… [and] early childhood education… These are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me…. I will be responsible for making sure that our voters turn out.”
Obama’s comments appear motivated by a confidential campaign memo reported on in Sunday’s New York Times. The memo, written by pollster Cornell Belcher, noted that turnout among African American voters is expected to fall off from historically elevated rates in 2008 and 2012. A senior White House official, who commented in the Times piece, said the White House was “concerned that some of the campaigns are not focused enough on the importance of turning out presidential-year voters, including African-Americans.” The President later taped interviews with radio shows targeted at African-American audiences, encouraging listeners to vote.
His comments with Sharpton took one step further by voicing his support for candidates wary to acknowledge their support of him. They may serve as an answer to the fears of Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge and Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings. Fudge voiced her concerns that backing away from the President might depress black support for Allison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky while Cummings urged caution, noting that President Obama is loved “like a son” by black voters.
The President’s comments aren’t likely to thrill Democratic Senate candidates in red states like Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina. While Democrats in these races are trying to distance themselves from the White House, Republicans tie their opponents to Obama at every turn. During the first debate between Arkansas’ Senate candidates, challenger Tom Cotton mentioned Barack Obama 74 times. Republicans challenging sitting Senators consistently cite statistics on the trail noting how many times their incumbent opponents have voted with the President. Americans for Prosperity ran similar ads hitting Begich (AK), Hagan (NC), Pryor (AR), and Landrieu (LA).
Peach State Payoff?
The President’s strategy of courting black voters might have particular application in Georgia. Democrat Michelle Nunn has walked a finer line than other candidates by citing policy disagreements to Politico but airing an ad featuring a photo of her and Obama. The ad was a response to one from her opponent David Perdue and also touts Nunn’s work with President George H.W. Bush.
But the issue of race in the Georgia midterms goes deeper than the Senate race.
In June, former NAACP President Ben Jealous released a report with the Center for American Progress on voter registration in southern states. The report estimates that Georgia has 692,000 unregistered black voters in midterm elections. Registering 60% of these unregistered voters and maintaining previous average turnout rates is enough to overcome the average margins of victory in the last three races for Georgia Governor.
The estimates brought media attention to the prospect that voter registration efforts might provide a political makeover in southern states. They were also followed by the efforts of the New Georgia Project. Led by Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, the group collected and submitted 85,000 voter registration applications.
New Georgia Project’s efforts were met with a subpoena from Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The state confirmed that 25 of the 85,000 applications were forgeries and said these confirmed forgeries were grounds to continue an investigation of other forms submitted by the group. Abrams called the state’s investigation a witch hunt and civil rights groups issued their own lawsuit against the Secretary of State’s office a few weeks later.
Other instances of race have taken a sharper tone during the midterms. Georgia State Senator Fran Millar blasted a decision by a metro-Atlanta county to allow Sunday early voting. He argued that the decision was politically motivated and said African-American mega churches busing voters to the polls abandoned the principle of separation of church and state. In a Facebook post sharing the same memo, Millar commented that he “would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters.”
The State Democratic Party of Georgia also used race in a campaign mailer this week. The piece depicts two children holding signs depicting a lasting image of Ferguson, Missouri demonstrations: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. The mailer cites the shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and says, “Ferguson, Missouri’s population is 67% African-American. But the city’s mayor and 5 of its 6 city council members, and 94% of its police force are white… If we want a better, safer future for our children, its up to us to vote for change.”
The Georgia governor’s race features division on issues that have impacts on African-American voters throughout the state. To date, the Governor and the legislature have refused to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. Since 2012, four rural hospitals have closed. African-Americans make up a majority in two of the counties that saw hospital closures: Calhoun and Stewart. Challenger Jason Carter supports Medicaid expansion while incumbent Governor Nathan Deal continues to oppose it, citing federal fiscal irresponsibility.
Cuts in education funding have also been concentrated in some of the state’s poorest communities. 7 of the 10 counties to receive the steepest cuts since 2003 have greater than 65% of students that qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. Two counties, Randolph and Baldwin, and one city district, Dublin, have African-American populations greater than 40%. Carter has proposed developing a separate education budget in an attempt to create political accountability on school funding votes in the legislature. Governor Deal has pledged to create a task force to do a full review of state funding of education, teacher evaluation and reward systems, and the relationship between the state and local school districts.
Governor Deal plans to base his education reform efforts on criminal justice reforms which he signed during his first term and touts as a positive policy change for black voters. The governor has run campaign mailers showing that the policy change has resulted in fewer African-Americans in Georgia jails and prisons.
All of this has heightened race as an issue in the midterms and created a window for Obama’s strategy. In an election where Georgia voters cite perceived suppression efforts as motivation to get to the polls, a record five black women are running for statewide seats, and more black voters were registered than white voters since March, the battle for Georgia may come down to how robust black turnout is.
In a year where Barack Obama is not on the ballot, he’s contending that his policies and his people are. His most recent comments indicate that his politics are too. Whether injecting himself in an election not typically kind to Democrats will pay off in the Peach state, or any other state, will be decided November 4th.