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Politics / AGAINST THE GRAIN

Obama’s Scant Democratic Bench

President Obama stands alone in the Green Room in 2010.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
September 4, 2012

Nearly two years ago, then-Rep. Artur Davis, still a Democrat in good standing, was lamenting the future of his now-former party. In an interview I had with him back then, he expressed concern that Democrats talk the talk when it comes to diversity, but the party is surprisingly thin when it comes to recruiting and electing viable minority statewide candidates. The comments came in the wake of his disappointing primary loss for Alabama governor, and then-Rep. Kendrick Meek’s third-place finish in the Florida Senate race, where Meek got little support from party leaders.

Initially, I thought he was overstating things. After all, an overwhelming number of minority voters back Democratic candidates. But look at the Democrats’ list of convention speakers, and the lack of a deep, diverse bench is painfully evident. The party is highlighting the stars of yesteryear--former President Clinton, Sen. John Kerry, and defeated Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Among the party’s Senate recruits, the only minority candidate is Richard Carmona of Arizona, who faces a steep challenge in a solidly Republican state.

Davis’ critics may call him a turncoat, but his new party features more minorities holding Senate seats and governors’ offices, and they made sure convention viewers knew it. The tale of the tape: Republicans boast five minorities as governors or senators--Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez--and should have a sixth when Ted Cruz wins a gimme Senate race in Texas. Democrats have only four: Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and the two senators from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka. Of the four, only Patrick has been touted as a possible contender for a future presidential ticket.

 

The problem, as Davis explained to me, was that most of the Democrats’ minority representation comes from House members who hail from overwhelmingly liberal, majority-minority districts. Most of these members of Congress don’t have the broad political coalition to appeal to a wider swath of voters. Of the 13 nonwhite House Democrats speaking at the convention, only three have even an outside shot at future statewide office: Reps. Xavier Becerra and Judy Chu of California, and Donna Edwards of Maryland.

At the municipal level, Democrats have some up-and-comers, but all face uncertain paths to higher office--a recognition that it’s a steep path from city hall to serving on a national ticket. 

The Democrats’ keynote speaker on Tuesday night, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, is touted as a rising Hispanic star. But the uncomfortable political truth is that Castro, if he seeks higher office in Texas, could be stymied in a state that is dominated by Republicans and that doesn’t feature a single Democrat holding a statewide office. 

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is also a rising star in the party, but he burned bridges with the Obama campaign after taking it to task for its attack on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. If he were to run for governor, he would face a tough race against Republican incumbent Chris Christie in 2013. He may wait until 2014 to run for the seat currently held by Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Hometown Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, another impressive up-and-comer, passed up a golden opportunity to run for governor of North Carolina after Bev Perdue decided not to seek reelection this year. There aren’t many openings coming up for him: Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is running for reelection in 2014, and the next gubernatorial and Senate race openings aren’t until 2016.

For all the hype about the historic nature of President Obama’s presidency, he has brought along with him precious few Democrats who present the same post-racial appeal he showcased in 2008. He’s been single-mindedly focused on his own reelection at the expense of assisting down-ballot allies, as The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday. There isn’t a farm team of Obama Democrats looking to follow in his footsteps. He still commands loyalty, and there is no intra-party mutiny, even as his approval ratings struggle. But he doesn’t have any natural successors, win or lose in 2012.

That raises the question, what would happen to the party if Obama lost? He has been reliant on overwhelming support and enthusiasm among minority voters, even as support among white voters has dipped to historic lows for a Democratic nominee. The conventional wisdom has maintained, accurately, that this is a serious problem for Republicans, given the country’s rapidly diversifying electorate. If Republicans can’t win even one-third of Hispanics and they continue to be uncompetitive with blacks, the thinking goes, they’re toast. 

But equally as concerning for Democrats is that Obama is leading a ticket highly dependent on minority support without leading a complementary renaissance of Hispanic, Asian-American, and African-American Democrats who would be viable national contenders in the future. He’s pushed the party leftward but remains competitive against Mitt Romney by virtue of his sky-high support from nonwhite voters. In a post-Obama world, though, Democrats could conceivably lose ground with those groups without a candidate who can inspire the base, while Republicans maintain a sizable edge with white voters.

Indeed, it’s hard to find many top-tier Democratic contenders for 2016 if Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t run. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper head most lists. It’s a bench that’s, comparatively speaking, awfully thin.

For now, Obama is fully focused on his own race, trying to gain every advantage in a close contest against Romney. But if he fails to develop a new generation of talent for the sake of his party’s future, the chorus saying that Obama “didn’t build it” will be coming from within, not from Republicans.

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