Dem candidates' awkward balancing act: Needing black voters while trashing first black president

Democratic Senate candidates will rely on high black voter turnout -- but can't stop criticizing President Obama!

Published October 21, 2014 6:32PM (EDT)

                           (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

The most generous way to describe one major aspect of Democratic Senate candidates' campaign playbook this year is that it's ... awkward. "Shameless" also works or, depending on your appetite for fatalism, "doomed to fail." We're talking about the party's conflicting messages for black voters. Democratic candidates will need extraordinary turnout from black voters. But their campaigns are predicated on distancing themselves, often to absurd degrees, from the first black president whose popularity remains extremely high among African-Americans.

President Obama appeared on Al Sharpton's radio show yesterday. The comment that got everyone's attention was when he said, regarding red/purple-state Democrats distancing themselves from him, "The bottom line is, though, these are all folks who vote with me, they have supported my agenda in Congress, they are on the right side of minimum wage, they are on the right side of fair pay, they are on the right side of rebuilding our infrastructure, they’re on the right side of early childhood education." He went on to add that "these are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me." Pundits immediately reacted to this as a miscue from the president, whose bear-hugging just made life more difficult for Democratic candidates working to disassociate themselves from the Obama Agenda.

This analysis isn't wrong that it may hurt candidates among some demographics. But it also missed the point of what Obama was trying to do. His most revealing line in the interview was when he said, "I tell [the candidates], I said, 'You know what, you do what you need to do to win. I will be responsible for making sure our voters turn out.'" In other words, the candidates will go out there and claim to have zero association with the president, while the president will do things like, say, go on Al Sharpton's radio show and reassure the African-American audiences with whom he's still popular that it's important  to show up on Election Day.

So there's a bit of tension here.

Let's talk about the Alison Lundergan Grimes campaign in Kentucky. Sure, Grimes' refusal to say that she voted for the president, and her hollow explanation about upholding the Principles of Privacy at the Ballot Box, isn't as important in the scheme of things as Mitch McConnell's inability to articulate anything resembling a coherent Obamacare position. But it was pathetic. And also damaging to her reelection prospects in a way that few mentioned at the time: It's a kick in the teeth to black voters, some of whom will be wondering, Why exactly should we support her candidacy, aside from the fact that she's not Mitch McConnell? The New York Times writes about this dynamic today:

Memo to Democratic candidates: There is a downside to running away from President Obama this election cycle. You risk alienating his most loyal supporters.

Exhibit A: Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky who refuses to say whether she voted for Mr. Obama. Black leaders say her comments may depress turnout in a year when Democrats need the African-American vote to keep control of the Senate.

“I mean, c’mon,” said Representative Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I think that does make black and brown people say: ‘Why are we supporting this person if she doesn’t support the president?’"

One might also find a similar slight in Grimes' declaration that she's a "Clinton Democrat," not an "Obama Democrat," the difference being that "Clinton Democrats" are apparently the only ones interested in "growing the middle class." This is some thin ice here: trying to distance yourself from the Obama administration to win some votes, but doing that with nonsense trash-talk that might alienate needed voters who still approve of the president.

Grimes, as the NYT writes, has a "chance to make amends" this Thursday when she'll speak at an NAACP dinner in Louisville. And the Grimes campaign is running radio ads to appeal to African-American voters, because she needs every last vote.

On Tuesday, the Grimes campaign unveiled a new radio ad of their own, featuring Georgia Powers — a civil rights leader and the first woman and African-American elected to the Kentucky state senate — asking Kentuckians to support Grimes.

"Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are trying to take away our right to vote. That's why our community and faith leaders are rallying behind Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes," Powers says.

The sad thing is that even if black Democrats turn out to vote in high numbers for Democratic candidates who've been trashing the president, and they still lose, black voters will be blamed anyway. The myth that black voters do not turn out in midterm elections is one that persists, and it's one that President Obama himself is known to spread.

This is not a very fun election.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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