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.
'He Can't Win'
The Democratic regulars at the annual Palm Bay Democratic Club luncheon in Melbourne listen politely to a procession of pitches by state and local candidates, most of whom ignore the timekeeper who waves her napkin in the air when the allotted five minutes are up.
The luncheon's silent auction features two bottles of peach schnapps and a red campaign T-shirt from the 1980s touting then-Dade County state's attorney Janet Reno— autographed by the woman who would become President Clinton's attorney general, $5 minimum bid.
Club officer Marcie Ramirez, who has never met Greene but has been assigned to introduce him, jokes that she has been having breakfast, lunch and dinner with him at home. That reference to the crush of TV ads he has been airing draws knowing laughter.
In his ads and his speech, Greene, 55, portrays himself as a savvy businessman and a Washington outsider ready to take on "career politicians" who are leading the country astray. Making a fortune in the subprime mortgage meltdown, he ranks No. 317 on Forbes' list of the richest Americans.
"This is a seat that Kendrick Meek cannot win," Greene says in a brief interview afterwards — not because of his race but because "people are fed up" with politicians and Meek is tainted by "one of the worst corruption scandals in Florida history." He is referring to federal funding Meek sought for a developer, now awaiting trial on fraud charges, who put Meek's mother on his payroll. Meek succeeded his mother, Carrie, in Congress in 2003.
Outside the glass doors, Kendrick Meek is climbing out of his car. The two men haven't seen one another since Greene launched his challenge.
"Hello, Kendrick," Greene says. "How are you doing?"
"Hello, haven't seen you," Meek replies as the two warily shake hands while pivoting to engage others in the hallway.
Meek's speech gets a warmer reception than Greene's. He met some of these activists while collecting more than 125,000 signatures on petitions to get on the ballot, a task the Miami congressman began in part to increase his name recognition in central and northern Florida.
"It's not a mystery about my Democratic credentials," he tells them. That's a reference to the fact Greene has spent most of his adulthood registered as an independent and even as a Republican when he unsuccessfully sought a GOP congressional nomination in California in 1982.
A few hours later, at a $20.10-a-ticket fundraiser in the hotel, Meek asks whether anyone in the audience has a 3-year-old in the family. When a woman raises her hand, Meek says to laughter: "OK, he's been here (in Florida) longer than Jeff Greene." Greene moved to the state in 2008.
Even so, after just three weeks of TV ads featuring his 8-month-old son and 83-year-old mother, Greene scrambled political calculations when he nearly tied Meek in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, trailing Meek by only 27% to 29% among likely Democratic primary voters.
Greene has increased the pressure on Meek to spend money on TV ads. In the latest Federal Election Commission reports, he has raised $5.7 million, compared with $10.2 million by Crist and $7 million by Rubio.
Meek's campaign manager, Abe Dyk, sees a bright side to the primary challenge, which has drawn attention to the Democratic race after months in which the news was focused on the battle between Republicans Crist and Rubio. The contested primary means a victory would give Meek "a bounce" and unite Democrats, he says.
"The Democratic base is all we need to win the general," Dyk says of the three-way race, predicting that the party's voters are "going to come home."
For Meek, defeating Greene in August may prove to be easier than convincing Democrats to support him rather than Crist in November. In the Quinnipiac poll, Crist led Rubio 37%-33% with Meek trailing at 17%. The survey of 1,133 Florida voters has a margin of error of +/–2.9 percentage points.
Among Democratic voters, 44% backed Meek, 37% Crist. Seven in 10 voters, including six in 10 Democrats, said they hadn't heard enough about Meek to have an opinion of him.
"I don't think Kendrick Meek is well known in this part of the state," says Karen Doddridge, 67, a high school teacher from Winter Park who is attending the Orange County Democratic Dinner in Orlando that night. She counts herself as a supporter, but she likes Crist, too, especially since he moved in April to block legislation that would have linked teacher pay to student performance.
"He vetoed Senate Bill 6, and there are a lot of teachers who are very appreciative," she says. The politically potent Florida teachers' union last month endorsed both Meek and Crist.
Why are there so few black nominees for top jobs this year?
The overwhelming majority of African-American candidates are Democrats, and some problems they're encountering are familiar to Democratic contenders generally. Republicans hope a widespread sense that the nation is headed in the wrong direction could fuel an electoral tidal wave that might even cost Democrats control of Congress.
David Bositis, a veteran scholar of black politics at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says a lack of a deep bench of African-American officeholders in lower offices also has been a factor in the paucity of nominees for prized offices this year.
And he and others say it was never realistic to expect that Obama's election, while a milestone, instantly would transform the nation's racial politics. Expectations were oversized when he won: Seven in 10 Americans predicted in a USA TODAY survey that his election would make race relations better.
"It was easy to overstate the significance of the Obama victory," says Hutchings, who studies race and elections. "A lot of people wanted to read into it that race didn't matter any more, or that race is less important than it was in the past. Even that more measured assessment was probably overstated."
Obama's election inspired some African Americans to get into politics or seek higher office, Hutchings says, but it also reinforced the perception by some that the Democratic Party reflects the interests and priorities of racial minorities — making it harder for Democratic candidates, especially black ones, to draw white voters and forge multiracial coalitions needed to win statewide contests.
Only a few black candidates in U.S. history have managed to do that. Since Reconstruction, the number of African Americans who have been elected senator or governor can be counted on one hand: governors Wilder and Patrick and senators Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Obama. (Brooke was a Republican; the rest are Democrats.)
Ken Lewis, a classmate of Michelle Obama at Harvard Law School, says Barack Obama's vision, not his race, inspired him to run for the Democratic Senate nomination in North Carolina this year. The corporate and securities lawyer from Chapel Hill got 17% of the vote in the May 4 primary.
Despite his third-place finish, Lewis says the political landscape for African Americans like himself has changed for the better in the wake of Obama.
"I've entered many rooms in North Carolina — classrooms, courtrooms, boardrooms — where my presence in that room was unique, and so I know what it feels like to enter a room where the question prevailing in the room is, 'Why are you here?'
"In this campaign, the question instead was, 'What do you have to say and what are you about?' ... I think that's a very significant development."
Lewis, 48, says he would consider running for office again.