The kind of black candidate that many conservatives dream of has entered the Republican primary for Georgia’s Senate seat in 2004.
Herman Cain is a pro-life Reaganite and the chairman of Godfather’s Pizza chain. He took over management of the once-troubled company, making it a success and finally buying it for $50 million from Pillsbury in 1988.
Most people outside the business world don’t know that Mr. Cain is also a former chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, a regular on the motivational speaking circuit and the author of three books.
What’s more, he talks the Ronald Reagan talk that Republicans love to hear: “We need to unleash the full potential of the economy in order to create more opportunity for all people and all Georgians — it’s not a black and white thing,” Mr. Cain said.
Although he has entered the race late, most observers assume the Atlanta businessman can finance his own campaign.
But Mr. Cain is cagey on money matters. Asked how much of his own money he is willing to spend, Mr. Cain replied, “I’m not going to play the money card at this point. I’d rather keep them guessing.”
He also said, “‘Wealthy Atlanta businessman’ is a strong expression applied to me. I am financially secure. I don’t consider myself wealthy like Steve Forbes or Warren Buffett.”
Money aside, his timing may be off by a couple of years, some Republicans say.
“He looks like the ideal candidate to run as a Republican,” said Georgia Christian Coalition Chairman Sadie Fields. “From what I know about him, he is highly credentialed as a successful businessman, but I have heard nothing about him in the political arena until now.”
Mr. Cain did not touch base with state party leaders, the National Republican Senatorial Committee or the party’s real godfather, White House strategist Karl Rove, before jumping into the race.
“When he announced, nobody in the loop knew he was going to do it,” said a well-placed Georgia Republican. “He didn’t contact the party. But he does command a great deal of respect. So if he had started to talk to us early about running for statewide office in 2006 and given us an opportunity to know him, there would have been an opportunity for him to run and run legitimately.”
Still, a prominent Republican activist in the state said privately, “Electing a conservative black Republican would [severely hurt] Democrats in Georgia, but right now I doubt he can take the primary when two strong, experienced Republican officeholders are also running.”
Mr. Cain enters a primary field that includes another black Republican, Atlanta businessman Al Bartell, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year, and two white congressmen, Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins.
Some insiders identify Mr. Isakson as the secret choice of Mr. Rove and the White House political machine.
Mr. Cain thinks he has a good shot at the nomination because the state’s primary rules allow Democrats to vote in Republican primaries and vice versa. Georgia’s large black population votes almost exclusively Democratic, but many could cross over to vote for a black candidate in the Republican primary.
Next year’s primary will determine which Democrat and Republican will face off in November 2004 to fill the seat of retiring conservative Democrat Sen. Zell Miller.
So far, as Georgia Republican Chairman Alec Poitevint notes, no black Democrats have yet entered the party’s Senate primary.
Republicans have dedicated themselves to reaching black voters next year. President Bush’s top political aides have said he must either gain a greater portion of the minority vote in 2004 or become a one-term president. Mr. Bush won 9 percent of the black vote nationally in 2000.
Some black Republicans, scorned by black Democrats as “sellouts,” also face skepticism from Republican conservatives. Colin L. Powell, for example, was touted as a presidential candidate in 2000, but backed out after an ad hoc coalition of conservative leaders held a press conference complaining he was too liberal.
Mr. Cain apparently poses no such obstacles. For most conservatives, he is to the right on abortion, gun control, tax cuts, Social Security reform and medical care. His first foray into politics was in the battle against the Clinton health care plan 10 years ago.
But Mr. Cain has little name recognition, and Republican officials say they have rarely seen him at state party functions.
“Certainly at this point, the contest is between Mac and Johnny,” said Georgia-based Republican campaign strategist Whit Ayres. “That doesn’t mean somebody can’t come in and spend several million dollars of his own money and become a factor, but Cain would be running with no name identification against two established Republican congressmen, one of whom has run two statewide races already.”
But Mr. Cain remains confident. “I think I have a chance of attracting enough of African-American voters, based on the real issues, such as our messed-up federal tax code and the disparity in life expectancy [between blacks and whites],” he says.
He favors giving workers more control over their Social Security contributions.
Noting that the life expectancy is 75 for white males, but 68 for black males, he says, “If you work for 40 years putting money into Social Security and die at 68, you have subsidized white males, you have no ownership of your contributions and can’t pass on to your children and grandchildren. When all Georgians understand this, they will vote for me.”