Can black voters save a Southern Republican?

North Carolina is getting bluer, but there's some speculation that GOP Sen. Richard Burr might keep his seat thanks to his outreach to African Americans.

Published April 1, 2009 11:05PM (EDT)

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., can't be sleeping well these days. He's up for reelection in 2010, and he represents a state that went suddenly blue -- with a vengeance -- in 2008. North Carolina voters gave their Electoral College votes to Barack Obama, tossed Elizabeth Dole out of the Senate in favor of her Democratic challenger, Kay Hagan, and kept the state house in Democratic hands. Plus, early polls don't look good for Burr.

But Congressional Quarterly's Jonathan Allen sees one bright spot for Burr: black voters. Traditionally, of course, African Americans in the South are a key Democratic constituency, the last demographic you'd expect to help a Republican senator keep his seat. But, Allen wrote earlier this week, "Though only 12 percent of his votes came from black constituents in 2004, the North Carolina Republican’s attention to that segment of the electorate could pay dividends in 2010 — either by lowering intensity of black opposition to him or by showing white voters that Burr can work across political and racial spectrums." Doug Heye, a former Burr staffer, took up the argument, writing for The Hill that "Allen's article should serve as a blueprint for Republicans."

That seems a little premature. As Allen himself noted, Jeffrey Elliot, the chair of the political science department at North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, says Burr's outreach is too low-profile to do him much good, especially considering the widespread opposition to Republican policies among African Americans. And, of course, there's no actual data yet that would support Allen's contentions. Still, this could be a race worth watching -- if Republicans can finally figure out how to appeal to black voters, the political landscape would suddenly be very different.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2010 Elections Richard Burr R-n.c.