Terry McAuliffe’s big test: Turn out black voters
By: James Hohmann
October 26, 2013 12:40 PM EDT
RICHMOND, Va. — Will black voters come out for Terry McAuliffe?
In an election that polls show is his to lose, one of the last hurdles between the Democrat and the Virginia governorship is making sure African-American voters don’t stay home without President Barack Obama on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Turning out party loyalists is critical for candidates of either party in any off-year election, when voter interest tails off dramatically. Republican Ken Cuccinelli has staked what slim chance he has left of an upset on firing up the GOP base.
But the challenge is particularly pronounced for McAuliffe and blacks, who make up about a fifth of the electorate and are often the difference between victory and defeat for a Democrat running statewide in the commonwealth.
Obama lost whites to Mitt Romney by 24 points, according to exit polls, but he carried the state by 4 points because 20 percent of voters were black (and he carried 93 percent of them). Blacks comprised just 16 percent of the electorate in exit polls of the last governor’s race in 2009, which the Republican won big. McAuliffe doesn’t need to match Obama’s performance among African-American voters last year, but the dropoff cannot be too steep.
The former Democratic Party chairman and businessman is plainly aware of this. At the annual meeting of the Virginia NAACP here Friday night, McAuliffe tried to recreate the spirit of 2012. Obama’s campaign deployed him to an elementary school on election night, he recalled, to encourage voters waiting in the cold to stay until they cast their ballots.
“I was handing out hot cocoa and hand warmers and coffee,” he said. “You know what? Not one person left that line. Not even families with school-aged children. We need that intensity again this year, folks! We need that intensity the next 10 days.”
McAuliffe’s strategy in the 2009 Democratic primary for governor was also to run up the black vote. He campaigned with the hip-hop artist will.i.am, organized in black neighborhoods and saturated urban radio stations. But he failed to expand the electorate and lost by a humiliating 23 points.
Most of McAuliffe’s television ads this year have attacked Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who a majority of voters now view negatively. But McAuliffe’s own favorability rating is middling, and he still has yet to demonstrate he can fire up the Obama coalition of young people, women and blacks.
In interviews at the NAACP conference, a chorus of leaders expressed concern about the risk of a drop-off in African-American voter turnout that could devastate Democrats.
“I hope that, as African-Americans, we’ve learned in 2009 and 2010 that you cannot sit back,” said Penny Franklin, 55, the president of a manufacturing union local in Christiansburg. “That’s what I’m hoping is going to happen, but I’m just hearing way too many folks saying I don’t like either one and I’m just not voting.”
Henry Marsh (D), who in 1977 became Richmond’s first black mayor, warned against putting too much stock in polls showing McAuliffe up in the high single digits. He recalled that Doug Wilder, the state’s first black governor, was also way ahead two weeks before his 1989 election but wound up winning by less than 7,000 votes.
“If there is a drop off like last time, we’ll lose the election,” said Marsh, a state senator since 1992. “The tea party folks are going to vote. There are not as many of ‘em, but they’re all gonna vote.”
McAuliffe made the hard sell. Accompanied by his wife, he told the NAACP members he wants more state contracts for minority-owned businesses, automatic restoration of voting rights for felons and the closure of all payday lending stores in Virginia.
“We cannot do it if you do not vote,” he said. “Many of you voted last year in the presidential year … People fought and died for the right to vote in this country, and let’s make sure we set a great example for the nation by voting.”
Turnout among all groups always drops off from the presidential to gubernatorial elections. In 2008, 75 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. It was 40 percent in 2009. Last year, 72 percent voted. Most analysts predict a number below 40 percent on Election Day.
Behind the scenes, McAuliffe advisers say a huge part of their get-out-the-vote operation is devoted specifically to African-Americans. They hired field coordinators months ago who worked for Obama last year in North Carolina and Wisconsin.
They have identified almost 300,000 African-American voters, and they are spending money on targeted radio and TV to reach as many as they can. More than 350 African-American businesses have put signs up in their windows that show McAuliffe and Obama together.
McAuliffe field organizers are employing a technique called “group validation” as they go door to door. They note that African-Americans voted at a higher rate than whites last year and say they have the chance to do it again. The message is not that it will be a low-turnout election, an adviser said, but that everyone else is voting so you should, too.
The White House and the McAuliffe campaign have not said firmly one way or another whether Obama will campaign for McAuliffe in the final days, but a presidential trip seems more unlikely by the day. It could undercut McAuliffe’s effort to downplay his own partisan past while helping Cuccinelli excite his conservative base.
Four years ago, with moderate Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds struggling, the White House deployed Obama one week before the election to speak at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Deeds won 90 percent of the black vote, but he lost by 17 points.
Michelle Obama appeared at a June fundraiser for McAuliffe. A full-page ad in this week’s Richmond Free Press, the local African-American newspaper, features a picture of the two from the event with a quote from the First Lady that describes McAuliffe as “our friend.” The paper endorsed McAuliffe in the same edition.
Bill Clinton, a close McAuliffe friend, will campaign around Virginia with McAuliffe from Sunday through Tuesday, with several stops seemingly designed to excite the black community.
And McAuliffe bent over backwards to link himself with Obama as he urged activists to volunteer for him in the final week.
“I support the president [in] making sure we have the Medicaid expansion in Virginia,” he said, adding that his opponent “doesn’t like what he calls ‘Obamacare.’”
Cuccinelli is by no means writing blacks off. He appeared after McAuliffe at the NAACP candidate forum, proudly noting that he has only missed one of their conventions since 2009. He won praise for having an “open-door policy” with the group as attorney general.
A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed the Republican at 14 percent support among likely black voters, and McAuliffe at 78 percent.
“I do not and will never take any vote for granted, including anyone here, and I believe my opponent has done that,” Cuccinelli told the audience. “I’m here knowing full well that, in terms of the whole room, my odds of breaking 50 percent aren’t that good. And that’s okay. I’m running to be the governor for 100 percent of Virginians, and I believe there are plenty of people here who agree with me on a variety of issues.”
Cuccinelli talked about getting Thomas Haynesworth exonerated and freed after 27 years in jail for sexual assaults he did not commit. Haynesworth now works in his office. He also aired a television ad this month built around the endorsement of a female, African-American Democrat on the Richmond school board, Tichi Eppes, who praises his education plans.
“I’ve yet to find a person that I agree with on everything, but I’ve yet to find a Virginian that I don’t agree with on something,” Cuccinelli said. “Where we can work together, we’ll work together.”
The GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, is an African-American minister. He is outspoken on social issues, and Cuccinelli has kept some distance since Jackson won the nomination during a convention.
Another factor is that Libertarian Robert Sarvis, pulling double digits in some polls, has an African-American wife.
“I’m also the only person here who is mixed race, who is in an interracial marriage, whose marriage was once illegal in this state,” he said at Friday’s forum.
At his weekend conference, the executive director of the Virginia NAACP prodded everyone to vote.
“We can’t afford to have dismal turnout,” said King Salim Khalfani. “Our lives, our very existence, is at stake. Exercise that right. Let’s resurrect the dead if we have to, and get the rest of our fellow citizens out to the polls.”