Affirmative action emerges as wedge issue in election

Republicans and Democrats have taken turns blaming election losses on wedge-
issue ballot initiatives. Democrats say that gay marriage bans helped President Bush and Republicans turn out the conservative vote in 11 states in 2004, while Republicans believe that a stem cell research vote put them on the defensive during congressional races in 2006.

The ballot initiative wedge issue of 2008 may be affirmative action, which could help Republicans.

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A conservative group hopes to pass initiatives amending state constitutions in five states — Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma — that would ban race and gender preferences in state government hiring and public education. Liberal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are trying to keep them off the ballot.

“I see it, rhetorically, more putting Democrats in a tough spot,” said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They’re going to have to reject [the initiative] or avoid an issue that core Democrats care about.”

The anti-affirmative action initiatives could play a role in the presidential race, with Colorado and Missouri looking like swing states and with Democrats nominating either a woman, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), or an African-American, Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Trump hits Romney for Mueller criticism Former Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' MORE (Ill.), Kimball said.

A stem cell ballot initiative played a central role in Missouri’s 2006 Senate race between Democrat Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillBig Dem names show little interest in Senate Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill Endorsements? Biden can't count on a flood from the Senate MORE and then-Sen. Jim Talent (R). McCaskill hammered Talent for his opposition to an initiative allowing stem cell research in their state. Her most memorable campaign ad featured actor Michael J. Fox, visibly affected by Parkinson’s disease, calling on voters to back the Democrat because she supported stem cell research. Both McCaskill and the initiative won by 50,000 votes, which was less than 3 percent of the vote.

But Democrats may find themselves on the defensive over this year’s initiatives, since similar anti-affirmative action efforts have been successful before. Voters passed them in California (1996), Washington state (1998) and Michigan (2006).

The same group supporting those measures, the American Civil Rights Institute, and its chairman, Ward Connerly, a California Republican, are also behind this year’s measures.

“The people of Missouri should expect no more or deserve no less than to be treated equally under the law,” said Tim Asher, who is leading the group’s effort in that state.

Since more than four-fifths of Missouri is white and much of it is suburban, Kimball expects Missouri voters to pass the initiative should it appear on the ballot. (Supporters of the group have already turned in the necessary signatures in Colorado and Oklahoma.)

While national Democrats may only have to address the issue while visiting states where affirmative action is on the ballot, Democrats in competitive congressional races might need to address it throughout their campaigns, Kimball said.

In Missouri, Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesAirports push lawmakers to raise passenger fees House fails to override Trump veto on border wall FAA comes under new scrutiny over Boeing decision MORE (R) is running for a fifth term against former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D). Democrats also hope to take the seat of Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R), who is retiring. In Colorado, Democrats have their sights set on Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s (R) seat and the open Senate seat of Wayne Allard (R), who is also retiring. In Arizona, Democratic Reps. Gabrielle Giffords and Harry Mitchell are hoping for a second term after winning close races in 2006. Democrats are targeting the seat of Rep. Rick Renzi, another Republican leaving Congress, as well as House Republican John Shadegg.

One Arizona Republican aide was doubtful, however, that the initiative would have much impact on the state’s competitive House races. He said strong turnout is expected because the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEarth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders MORE, is a popular senator in his home state.

“Any issue on the ballot will be swamped, in effect, by McCain on the ballot,” the longtime aide said. “He will be the major driver in November.”

But if the initiatives make it to the ballots, groups on both the right and left will gear up to turn out their voters. And affirmative action has already emerged as an issue in the Democratic presidential contest. On Tuesday, Clinton backer Geraldine Ferraro told a California paper that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.”

Redditt Hudson, the racial justice manager for the ACLU’s Eastern Missouri chapter, said that the ACLU and the Service Employees International Union, both groups friendly to Democrats, are already working to oppose the initiative. They are part of a Missouri business and labor coalition called “WE CAN MO!” that hopes to keep the measure off the November ballot.

“Ward Connerly is playing [on] the deepest-seated emotions in terms of race and gender and the responses that can generate,” he said. But those emotions can help Democratic turnout in the fall, “depending on how people arrive at the polls.”

“In our preference, they’re educated [about the issue],” Hudson said. It could hurt Democrats “if they come out just ready to react, especially if they want to conflate affirmative action with illegal immigration.”

Aaron Blake contributed to this article.