Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Obama Primaries Continue.... Down Ballot

If you thought the primary season was over, guess again. There are a number of interesting congressional primaries in the offing and, as a number of recent stories suggest (see here and here), a fascinating subtext in them is how these candidates' support for Obama (and when that support came) will affect their chances. The most compelling of these races pit established African American House members (who initially supported Hillary Clinton) against younger, upstart, black politicians who were early Obama boosters. In many ways this is a generational battle between those who fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement and those who have grown up as the beneficiaries of the movement. As this earlier generation of black politicians entered the political arena, accommodating themselves to the party establishment was a crucial step in developing a base of power. Coming from safe districts they were able to climb the seniority ladder in Congress to the point that now, many of the most influential House Democrats are members of the Congressional Black Caucus (see James Clyburn, Charlie Rangel, John Conyers, and Bennie Thompson for examples) These members were long time and devoted supporters of Bill Clinton going back to the '90's and, when Hillary Clinton seemed the all but assured nominee in late '07, many transferred their support from Bill to her. When the Obama candidacy took off, however, many of members found themselves scrambling to jump on board. Having not had to run in a close campaign in many cycles, they are now trying to ramp up long dormant organizations. So, not only do these campaigns provide us with a fascinating generational drama in which one's degree of Obamamania is the yardstick by which a candidate is measured, but they offer a constant reminder of how important it is for members of Congress to be attuned to the ebbs and flows of constituent opinion. With higher than normal turnout and an energinzed electorate, these entrenched members are facing an unfamiliar level of unpredictability and volatility.

In Georgia today the iconic John Lewis finds himself running to retain his seat against two younger candidates. Both have used Lewis' early bolstering of Clinton against him in a district that gave Obama a three to one margin of victory. Lewis switched his support to Obama in the aftermath of the Georgia primary but still drew heavy fire from many of his constituents.

In several of these races, it appears as if the incumbents will slip through, mainly due to the fact that they are facing not one but several primary opponents. Not only is it extremely difficult to beat incumbents in primary battles, but it is almost impossible to do so when the anti-incumbent vote is being split among numerous challengers.

In an even more interesting twist, Georgia Congressman John Barrow (who is white and was an early Obama supporter) is being challenged for re-nomination by an African American state senator, in the 12th district. With African Americans making up 45% of the electorate in the district which includes Savannah and Augusta, Barrow has received the help and endorsement of Obama in trying to hold on to his seat. Already a swing district, this race could be the most interesting of today's slate to watch.

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