Tyler Bilbo, Columnist
Ideology: Yellow-Dog Democrat | Writing from: Tulsa, Oklahoma
In 2007, Alabama Congressman Artur Davis became the first non-Illinois politician to publically endorse Barack Obama. Longtime friends from Harvard Law School, Davis and Obama share a lot in common. As youthful black politicians whose aspirations take them beyond majority-black constituencies, the two have de-emphasized traditional minority issues for the sake of building multi-racial and politically viable coalition.
While Obama successfully executed this strategy, the same general framework resoundingly failed Artur Davis in Alabama’s gubernatorial primary. Although the political climate is drastically different than it was two years ago, Davis should have won Tuesday’s primary and the four-term Congressman has no one to blame but himself.
Unlike Obama in the 2008 primaries, Davis openly tacked to the right in anticipation of the general election’s more politically conservative electorate. While an unabashed rightward shift would doom a Democratic candidate in any other statewide primary, Davis calculated that such a move would be inconsequential in a state like Alabama where registered Democrats frequently vote for Republicans in upper-ballot races. Davis’s reasoning is not totally uncharacteristic of Southern Democrats in similar positions. Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, who currently faces a prominent challenge from the state’s more liberal Lieutenant Governor, has openly communicated that she is the more conservative choice in the primary yet the senator remains competitive in the upcoming runoff.
Of course, Davis also appeared competitive days before getting thumped in Tuesday’s primary. In addition to tacking right, however, Davis made a series of other costly calculations that eerily mirror the actions of our President.
Davis believed that his viability as a general election candidate depended on his ability to transcend a series of stereotypical notions about Alabama’s black political leaders. A year ago, Davis admitted to Glenn Ifill that embracing the state’s black leadership would destroy his electability and that their endorsements would be “counterproductive.” Most of the state’s black leaders are considerably more progressive than their white counterparts and their emphasis on traditional minority issues is typically strong. While Davis’s tenure in Congress demonstrates a conscious effort to separate from these stereotypes, he ratcheted up his promotion of his non-racial bona fides at a level that backfired.
While Obama dominated the rural black belt counties that makeup Davis’s district in Alabama’s 2008 primary, his opponent, Ron Sparks, won nearly all of them. In the state’s largely black urban communities, Sparks also won big while Davis floundered in areas that were presumed to be his base. Ultimately, Sparks won the primary with over 62% of the vote while most polling indicated that the race would be close.
Davis’s fatal decision to take the black vote for granted should serve as an important wakeup call for our President. While Obama remains extremely popular among black voters, his disregard for traditional racial issues is alarming and he will potentially endanger his base’s intensity in 2012.
At Tavis Smiley’s recent “We Count!” summit, a collection of influential black leaders expressed their growing discontent with Obama’s inattentiveness towards the black community. While the participants outlined specific issues and instances that they attributed to this lack of attention, nearly every criticism of Obama related to the President’s underlying sense of entitlement to the black vote. Without this same sense of entitlement that ultimately killed his gubernatorial aspirations, Artur Davis would have abandoned his misguided strategy of ignoring the concerns of black Alabamians.
President Obama’s historic victory made him a rightful hero for many of America’s black voters. Nonetheless, it is degrading to this entire demographic if we presume that the historical significance of his election will solely earn him the enduring admiration of black voters. If the President refuses to redirect his conscious avoidance of racial concerns, he will potentially alienate his most loyal supporters. For the sake of a second term, I hope he’s paid attention to the downfall of his fellow classmate from Harvard as we approach 2012.