Democrats are turning to black voters for help in next week's midterm elections, hoping they can be the jolt of energy needed to stem projected lossesby winning key competitive congressional and gubernatorial races.
Democratic strategists say huge turnout from black voters, the party's most loyal supporters, could help unseat Gov. Rick Perry in Texas, push the Florida gubernatorial race into the Democratic column, defend Senate seats in Nevada, Illinois and Pennsylvania and even potentially spoil the GOP's efforts to capture the 39 seats they need to take over the House.
But former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said he doesn't see the levels of enthusiasm black voters would need to show.
"I am not being critical of anyone — any criticism I give is being constructive, hopefully — but I don't know if it is there at this point," Mr. Wilder said. "I don't see the excitement, nor do I feel the excitement.
"I think you are going to have the traditional drop-off that you have in a midterm. I also think that Obama not being on the ballot and saying, 'I need you to vote for me,' is going to have an impact," he said.
In 1998, black voters turned out in droves to support President Clinton, helping Democrats defy history and pick up seats in a midterm election in which they also controlled the White House.
David A. Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said there are similarities between this year and 1998 and 1996, when elections played out in states with significant black populations and Democrats made gains.
"The extent of the Democrats' losses will depend on their ability to turn out their most loyal voters, and no voting bloc will be more important to them than African-Americans," Mr. Bositis said. "If they can mobilize a strong black turnout, the Democrats can significantly reduce their potential losses."
Attempts to energize that base are already under way.
The Democratic National Committee has poured about $3 million into efforts to motivate black voters to go to the polls, and President Obama has conducted a number of radio interviews in recent weeks with stations that have large black audiences.
The president is also appearing in commercials airing in Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland - cities with large black populations.
Dick W. Simpson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago City Council alderman, said the effort "could be the defining feature" of the Senate race between Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat.
"Obama will drive out the turnout a bit and there is a major effort, one of them going on locally, where the Democratic Party has bought ads on the black radio stations from Obama," Mr. Simpson said. "It will drive out the turnout some; the question is whether it will drive out the turnout a lot."
Working against high turnout is the fact that Chicago doesn't have competitive House elections and Mr. Obama is not on the ballot.
In 2008, with Mr. Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, black voters made up 12.1 percent of the vote, driven in large part by increases among black women and younger voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Mr. Obama won 96 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls.
His approval rating remains astronomical among black voters, but the question is whether Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats can translate that support into votes.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who ran the House Republicans' campaign committee in 2000 and 2002, said Republicans are aware of the danger of awakening the massive base of black voters. He said that's one reason so many Republican attacks are against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rather than against Mr. Obama.
"Hitting Obama can stir up part of their base. The African-American base right now is napping. They're asleep," he said. "Democrats are just waiting for somebody out there to say something — they used to call it waving the bloody shirt, is what they called it — to get the old animosities and antagonism going."
One Democratic strategist said that the black vote will "make the difference" in gubernatorial and House races in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and could be a factor elsewhere.
"It could decide the Texas governor's race," the strategist said. "The Texas governor's race a lot of people think is actually within reach for Democrats if black turnout in Houston is up."
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