Congressman Artur Davis, the man who hopes to become Alabama’s first black governor, is used to getting guff from other black leaders. First he was lambasted for being the only black member of Congress to vote against the President’s health care bill. Then he failed to get the endorsements of many prominent civil rights organizations, which instead backed his opponent, Ron Sparks, the (white) state agriculture commissioner. But as the polls opened this morning, his prospects, at least in the primary, are still looking pretty good.
Davis, a member of the House since 2003, has had a comfortable financial advantage over Sparks. He has also been leading Sparks in the polls, by less today than in previous weeks, but still by a decent margin – 10 points in the most recent Public Policy Polling survey released on Saturday was nothing to sneeze at. And some pundits are still predicting that the bigger the black turnout today, the better Davis will fare — endorsements be damned.
“If he can get the turnout, he will prevail,” says David J. Lanoue, chair of the political science department at the University of Alabama. While the black voters who vote in every election might be swayed by organizational seals of approval, he says, the “non-habitual” black voters are still more likely to vote for the black candidate. He sees the collective rejection as merely “a little bit of a dent in Artur Davis’ armor.”
Others, such as Alabama State University professor Byrdie Larkin, believe that “your average Jack-and-Jill” voters do care what the caucuses say but that political maneuvering could turn their insults to advantage. Davis has been trumpeting his lack of endorsement as a sign of his independence — an especially appealing move in these anti-establishment times — and if that line has worked, Larkin says, Davis may be sitting pretty. One thing everyone seems to agree on: the black vote will be decisive.
Race is likely to figure just as crucially into the general election. If Davis wins, Larkin says, he’ll be fighting against the stereotype of black Alabaman politicians “always putting race first” — a sentiment Davis was attempting to pre-empt by calling for “color-blind” voting during some last-minute campaigning. And Lanoue presents a four-part, race-centric prescription for Davis’ success: Today, he must (1) handily beat Sparks in the primary by (2) having a great black voter turnout and meanwhile (3) getting enough of the white vote for people not to view this as a white/black contest. Then Davis (4) needs to be faced with a Republican opponent who is polarizing enough to free up the moderate voters. “And if all that happens, I’d say he’s got a one in three chance,” Lanoue says.
The turnout since the polls opened at 7 a.m. has been moderate at best, though poll administrators are predicting the typical after-work surge. Will that surge be greater given the historical aspect of the race? That notion “is certainly in the background,” Lanoue says, though the national media is making more of it than Alabamans, who expect 2010, as most years, to be “a good Republican” one.