Top Spots Still Elusive For Black Candidates

The theory was that Barack Obama's election as president in 2008 signaled a new era for black candidates trying to win statewide contests for senator or governor. Now, Rep. Kendrick Meek is struggling with the reality.

In Florida, the 43-year-old African-American congressman, long the presumptive Democratic nominee in the state's tumultuous Senate race, is trying to fend off a surprise primary challenge from a Palm Beach billionaire and running a distant third in general-election matchups against a darling of the anti-tax "Tea Party" movement and the state's popular governor.

Nationwide, the number of African Americans winning major-party nominations for the high-profile offices hasn't risen in the wake of Obama's election. It has gone down.

A record six black candidates claimed these nominations in the 2006 midterms. This year, no more than four have a reasonable chance to be nominated.

"It's tremendously disappointing," says former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected to lead a state. "We're going to end up with maybe one governor, maybe with no senator, losing chairmanships if we do lose the House. ... We will have been set back."

Among black candidates, Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is seeking a second term. In Georgia, Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond faces an uphill race for the Senate against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson and Attorney General Thurbert Baker is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, though former governor Roy Barnes is favored in the state's July 20 primary.

In South Carolina, Alvin Greene, an unemployed Army veteran, unexpectedly won the Democratic Senate nomination last week after doing no traditional campaigning. The party has asked him to withdraw.

Then there's Meek, who cites Obama as an inspiration and met in Chicago this month with veterans of Obama's 2004 Senate campaign for advice. But a $4 million advertising blitz over the past month by political unknown Jeff Greene has imperiled Meek's nomination.

Just as Obama's victory spurred some African Americans to seek higher office, the rout of Rep. Artur Davis in Alabama's Democratic primary for governor this month and other recent losses could discourage them from trying, worries Wilder, now 79.

Political scientists including Vincent Hutchings of the University of Michigan say Obama's breakthrough not only hasn't smoothed the way for other black candidates but has complicated it, at least for now.

Meek, 6-foot-3 and with the steady demeanor of the state trooper he once was, is upbeat.

"I'm comfortable playing the role of David," he says in an interview in a quiet corner of a hotel lobby here, his brown tooled cowboy boots stretched out in front of him. First he must defeat Greene in the Aug. 24 Democratic primary, then win the November election.

That will require threading a needle: Holding the Democratic base — winning back many Democrats now inclined to back Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent governor — as Republican Marco Rubio and Crist divide the rest.

"The president proved that a person of color can run and win in Florida," Meek says. The Sunshine State, 15% black and 20% Hispanic, went for Obama by 51%-48% over Republican John McCain. In office, Meek says, Obama has demonstrated to voters that an African American can make decisions "on behalf of all of us," black and white.

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