While political junkies follow Blanche Lincoln's primary runoff in Arkansas, another congressional runoff is shaping up to be a historic airing of the state's racial politics. One of the two candidates still in the race to represent Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District, Joyce Elliott, would, if elected, become the first African American to represent the state in Washington, D.C. Not just since Reconstruction: ever. Arkansas has the dubious honor of being the only former Confederate state to have never elected an African American to Congress or statewide office.
While Barack Obama upped African American voter turnout, and, as the media would have us believe, inspired a new generation of African American candidates in both parties, his election also helped activate white Americans motivated by racial animosity in their civic lives. Particularly in the Deep South the presence of a black president is igniting resentment among white voters. Elliott's election would be a historic achievement for Arkansas, but the race itself shows exactly how far we are from being a post-racial society.
The seat for Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District opened up when Democrat Vic Snyder, a physician and attorney, decided in January not to run for re-election. Elected in 1996, Snyder was one of the many representatives who faced disruptive and angry town halls during the recent health-care reform debate. A January poll from FireDogLake and SurveyUSA showed him trailing his Republican challenger, Tim Griffin, a lawyer and former U.S. attorney who worked for George W. Bush on John Roberts' Supreme Court nomination. Snyder was the sixth Democrat at the time to retire rather than face a difficult re-election battle.
Snyder remains popular with the Democratic electorate in Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the state capital (and largest city), Little Rock, its suburbs, and a small chunk of rural counties stretching into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. It's about 20 percent African American, and 75 percent white. Though he represented a conservative state, Snyder wasn't a reliable Blue Dog centrist -- he supported health care and the stimulus and voted to support abortion and civil rights. Elliott has been running as the progressive candidate who will carry on Snyder's legacy. She says she would have supported the health-care bill and supports cap-and-trade as a policy. She's the majority leader in the state Senate and says she had been planning to run for Snyder's seat when he retired.
Elliott, 59, helped integrate her high school and was one of the few nonwhite students to attend her small state college. She says that her decision to run had nothing to do with her potential to make history but with her desire to bridge racial divides. "I've always had to assume I had to work to earn people's confidence," she says. "I've been very careful about making sure that I campaign the entire district."
Her remaining opponent, Robbie Wills, the speaker of the state House, is running as the more conservative candidate. Both candidates have said race isn't an issue in the campaign: as Wills stressed to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after the May 18 primary, "The issue is ideology and electability."
But national voting patterns in the 2008 election show how words like ideology and electability are code words that ignite passions over race. Kristen Clarke, co-director of the political participation group at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that while Obama's candidacy in 2008 helped excite African American voters, Obama did the worst in the Deep South where voters are sharply divided over race. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana -- Arkansas’ neighbors -- Obama got just 10 percent, 11 percent, and 14 percent of the vote respectively. When you drill down on the differences between the ways white voters in those states voted in other elections, it's clear that race was a determining factor in how they voted in 2008.
Clarke says the NAACP has seen a rise in cases of voter disenfranchisement and restrictive voting requirements that disproportionately affect racial minorities in municipalities around the country, not just in the South. A recent mayoral election in Atlanta -- which pitted Kasim Reed, an African American candidate, against Mary Norwood, who nearly became the city's first white mayor in 35 years -- showed that race could be a divisive issue even in a majority African American city. While Norwood was able to siphon off 23 percent of the votes cast in black City Council districts, Reed was able to only get 14.5 percent of the vote in majority-white districts.
Smaller cities in states like Mississippi in which black incumbent mayors and officials are losing races, show just how divisive having a black president has proved. "White voters are registering in historic numbers and are turning out in strong numbers," Clarke says. "The impact is really varied, but what is most certainly true is that we are not seeing the waning of voter discrimination."
To understand the role racial resentment plays in driving some voters, especially rural whites, to the polls, all you have to do is look at the vocal, extreme fringe. A University of Washington study of the Tea Party found that of whites who approved of the Tea Party, 35 percent thought blacks were hardworking, 45 percent thought blacks were intelligent, and 41 percent said they were trustworthy. A New York Times/CNN poll found 52 percent thought too much had been made of the problems facing black people in recent years. It's not too much of a leap to see that as an extension of the Republican Party's effort to woo white Southern voters using coded language supporting state's rights and objecting to an expanded role of the federal government since the Civil Rights legislation of the Johnson administration. There's no question that the Tea Party's ascendancy is fueled, in part, by the election of a black president.
Statewide elections have proved difficult for African Americans almost everywhere. Only six senators have been black, two of whom served during Reconstruction. Only two black governors have ever been elected. Where in other states congressional districts are often drawn in a way that benefits a highly concentrated African American population, Arkansas' particular problem is that its relatively small black population -- under 16 percent -- is concentrated in the Little Rock area and the Delta region and is otherwise fairly spread out.
Jay Barth, a political-science professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas who lost his own race for state Senate last Tuesday, says Elliott has done well because she prevented huge losses in most counties, usually finishing in second place, while at the same time carrying Pulaski County, which is home to Little Rock, with big numbers. "She melded a very strong African American turnout and progressive turnout," he says. The Democratic primary base in the area also leans to the left because moderates have gone to the Republican Party.
The challenge for Elliott if she wins, of course, is that the general election will contain a different group of voters. Obama lost big among white, rural voters in the state, which was one of the few to vote more Republican than it had in 2004. How Elliott fares in the June 8 runoff and, especially, in the general, may say a lot about the real Obama effect.