By Aaron Blake and Jordan Fabian - 07/14/08 08:08 PM EDT
Barack Obama’s endorsement of a white incumbent facing a black primary challenger has disappointed some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who are wondering whether he will support them in their primaries.
Last month, the Illinois senator surprised many political observers by endorsing centrist Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) in Tuesday’s primary against state Sen. Regina Thomas.
Barrow’s endorsement has some in the Black Caucus wondering whether Obama will lift a finger for them after issuing such a harmful blow to a black candidate’s campaign.
CBC Chairwoman Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) said that some members were “a bit disappointed” in the endorsement and that she is still waiting to hear back from Obama’s campaign about her primary.
She said Monday that she asked for his endorsement long enough ago “so that he should’ve gotten back to me by now.”
“I would have liked to have heard back from him by now,” Kilpatrick said. “I’m 22 days out of my election.” But she also said she understands that the presidential candidate is busy with many other things and downplayed the importance of the endorsement.
While Obama’s support will likely help Barrow, several Democrats say it was the X-factor in Rep. Bill Foster’s (D-Ill.) special-election win in March.
As it did in Obama’s state, members of the CBC agree that Obama’s support carries added weight with majority-black electorates.
“I think his coattails are long and strong,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Asked whether Obama is using those coattails enough, Cummings said: “The jury is still out on that. I think he’s looking at races on a case-by-case basis. I’m not sure what goes into that calculus.”
Cummings specifically urged that Obama get involved in Rep. Edolphus Towns’s (D-N.Y.) primary.
Towns endorsed his New York colleague Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) for president, and opponent Kevin Powell, a former star of MTV’s “Real World,” has tried to tie himself to Obama.
Towns survived last cycle with 47 percent of the vote, thanks to a crowded primary field, but he faces just one opponent this time.
He said Obama’s support for Barrow indeed raised eyebrows at the CBC: “Some members were surprised that he endorsed Barrow. Most thought he would remain neutral.”
As for his own race, Towns made it clear he’s angling for Obama’s help.
“I hope he would. I’ll make the request myself,” he said. “I feel like his endorsement would be extremely helpful. … There are a lot of colleges and universities in my district. I’ve never seen this kind of excitement from young people.”
The situation is a bit harrier with Kilpatrick and CBC Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).
It’s pretty clear the indicted Jefferson is off-limits for Obama’s public support, but Kilpatrick presents him perhaps his biggest quandary.
As chairwoman of the CBC, she is an important political figure, and her state is vital to Obama’s presidential aspirations. But she has also egged on a primary challenge by sticking up for her indicted son, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D).
Endorsing her risks ties to her son amid Obama’s promises of a new kind of politics, while not endorsing her risks a big symbolic stiff for the CBC and could jeopardize Obama’s standing in a swing state.
Kilpatrick faces former state Rep. Mary Waters and state Sen. Martha Scott.
Adolph Mongo, a political analyst and former consultant to Mayor Kilpatrick, said that Obama’s support would be a “tremendous endorsement” for Carolyn Kilpatrick in terms of the good perception it would generate amongst voters. But he suggested it might be more important for Obama.
“Barack Obama cannot afford to snub the congresswoman and the mayor,” Mongo said. “The mayor is the only one in Detroit that has the machine to turn out the vote.”
David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, suggested that Obama’s endorsements could score points for him with the CBC, “especially because Rep. Kilpatrick isn’t accused of anything.”
But he dismissed the notion that Michigan, historically a swing state, would be in play this year.
“Michigan is going to be an easy win for Obama,” he said. “The idea of Michigan being a swing state is ridiculous.”
The case for Obama endorsing Towns is clearer, and it would seem unlikely that Obama would hold a grudge against the Brooklyn congressman for endorsing his home-state candidate, which most every member does.
Jerry Skurnik, a partner at a New York political consulting firm that has done research for Towns, said “Obama endorsing Towns would be an enormous help.”
“Powell has made a linchpin of his campaign a criticism of Towns for endorsing Clinton,” Skurnik said.
Brooklyn state Sen. Eric Adams (D) said “it would send a strong message to the voters,” most of whom supported Obama.
The case is not the same in Louisiana, where Jefferson faces federal indictments on 16 corruption-related charges.
Shreveport-based political consultant Elliott Stonecipher said Jefferson’s ability to fundraise has been hampered by his ethical problems.
“Obama’s endorsement can make a big difference in that concern,” Stonecipher said. “That’s where it matters.”
But Stonecipher said he would be “stunned” if Obama decided to publicly back Jefferson: “It would be a questionable decision at best or raw hypocrisy at worst if Obama, who stands for new politics in America, would stand for the kind of problems Bill Jefferson has.”
Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro said: “Sen. Obama looks forward to continuing to work closely with the CBC. We were unaware of any concern. In the weeks ahead, we expect to have discussions with our Democratic allies, including leaders in the House and Senate to talk about other races and what role Senator Obama might play in them.”
An Obama aide said there were no plans at this time to endorse any of the three.
Another white incumbent facing a situation similar to Barrow’s could also line up for Obama’s coattails.
Freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a white man representing a majority-black district, faces an African-American woman, Nikki Tinker, in his primary in early August.
Cohen likened his campaign to Obama’s, pointing out that both are minorities among their electorates but are getting people to vote on issues other than race.
He said the endorsement would “certainly be helpful.”