Blacks Nearly 50% of State Democrats
Jim Tharpe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jun. 25
African-Americans next month could cast a majority of ballots in Georgia’s Democratic primary election for the first time, continuing a trend that accelerated during the 1990s.
Since votes often break along racial lines in Georgia, black Democratic candidates are likely to benefit from the realignment and black voters will gain clout in determining the party’s statewide candidates for public office.
But political scientist Charles Bullock said the shift could put the state’s once dominant party on precarious ground in general elections, where whites are the overwhelming majority.
“It’s changing not only the complexion but the ideological outlook of the Democratic primary electorate,” said Bullock, a University of Georgia professor who has studied statewide voting patterns.
Blacks made up 24 percent of Democratic primary voters in 1990, 36 percent in 1998 and 45 percent in 2002. Bullock and other experts predict the percentage could top 50 percent on July 20. Meanwhile, white voters have swelled the Republican primary’s numbers.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, and state Sen. Ed Harbison (D-Columbus), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, agreed with Bullock’s assessment. Brooks and Harbison will attend the association’s summer convention this weekend in Savannah, where Democratic candidates will be out in force seeking the support of black politicians and voters.
“The long-range implication is that the African-American community will be able to elect more African-American and minority candidate to offices,” Brooks said. “It also means the African-American community will have more influence in the Democratic Party.”
U.S. Senate candidate Denise Majette, an African-American congresswoman from DeKalb County, is one of the candidates who could benefit from a strong black turnout in her Democratic primary race against white businessman Cliff Oxford and six other lesser-known challengers.
Bullock said the increased black voting strength could push the Democratic Party to the left in a state already trending Republican.
“The potential is the Democrats will end up nominating more liberal candidates, which may make them less appealing to the broader electorate that shows up in November,” Bullock said.
Georgia has never elected a black governor, lieutenant governor or U.S. senator. However, voters statewide elected Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond and Attorney General Thurbert Baker in 1998, and subsequently re-elected the two African-Americans.
Republicans are not immune to intraparty struggles. The GOP in recent years has undergone struggles between social conservatives and moderates, said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. Very conservative candidates also carry liabilities into a general election, he said. State Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Kahn acknowledged that African-American clout in the party primary is increasing, but said that does not mean the party will wind up with more liberal candidates. He said the party is capable of selecting conservative-to-moderate statewide candidates who can compete with Republicans and win.
“The leading candidates for governor in 2006 are very capable of doing that,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor is raising money for a gubernatorial bid, while Secretary of State Cathy Cox is considering a run. Both have successfully courted African-American votes in the past.
Black voters are gaining power in a party that is losing statewide command as many whites align with the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party dominated Georgia politics for more than a century, and in recent years beat back Republican challenges with an increasingly fragile coalition of African-Americans and white conservatives. But rural white Georgians defected to the GOP in large numbers in 2002, helping to elect Sonny Perdue as the state’s first Republican governor in 130 years.
From 2000 to 2002, the number of blacks who voted in the Democratic primary increased by almost 70,000, while the number of whites decreased by 110,000. Meanwhile, the number of whites casting ballots in the Republican primary increased by nearly 200,000.
Abramowitz said black influence in the Democratic primary could be accentuated this year by individual contests. There is intense interest, he said, among white conservatives in the Republican battle for the U.S. Senate seat being being vacated by Zell Miller, a longtime Democrat who now tends to vote with his Republican colleagues and who is campaigning for President Bush’s re-election.
A battle among three big-name Republicans could lure conservative white Democrats to vote in the GOP primary.
Meanwhile, black turnout in the Democratic primary could be boosted by the fact that Majette is seeking her party’s nomination for Miller’s seat and three African-American women — including flamboyant former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney — are seeking the Democratic nomination for Majette’s House seat.
“That will leave mainly African-Americans and liberal-to-moderate whites voting in the Democratic primary,” Abramowitz said.