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Democrats look to black voters in key Senate races

November 1, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) — With Republicans confident of reclaiming control of the U.S. Senate, Democrats are looking to black voters in two Southern states to help preserve their majority.

Republicans, who are expected to keep control of the House in Tuesday’s election and need to gain six seats to win a majority in the Senate, have been bolstered by President Barack Obama’s low popularity ratings. But the president remains an inspirational figure for many African-Americans, and Democrats are pushing hard for high turnout among their core constituencies, including women and minorities.

In two of the tightest Senate races, early voting totals suggest reasons for optimism for Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Democratic hopeful Michelle Nunn in Georgia, as returns from both states show strong turnout in majority Democratic, heavily African-American urban counties. Nunn must offset Republican advantages among whites by having blacks account for about 30 percent of the ballots cast, while Hagan needs the African-American share of the total vote to approach 23 percent, the level it reached in 2008 and 2012.

Republicans say that a sour national mood benefits them, and they insist that early turnout deficits mean only that reliable Democrats are voting early and not changing the bottom line. Either way, both sides agree that black turnout will help decide the contests, and neither side is shying away from race in the campaign’s final days.

“There’s a lot of an angry white man out there,” singer-songwriter Patti Austin told a crowd of several hundred black voters in Georgia. “And they’re old. And they’re trying to hang on to their pots of gold. So go vote.”

In North Carolina, Hagan reminded a gathering of more than 1,000 black Baptists that her Republican opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, shepherded election law changes that shortened the number of early voting days, ended same-day registration during the early voting period and will require photo ID for ballot access starting in 2016. Critics say such restrictions discourage poor and African-American voters who lean Democratic.

“We have fought too hard and too long to protect the right to vote. Let’s show my opponent just how wrong he is,” Hagan said.

Listeners to urban radio stations in North Carolina have heard ads accusing Tillis of leading “the effort to pass the type of ‘stand your ground’ laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin,” referring to the unarmed black Florida teen fatally shot in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer, who was acquitted of all charges related to the shooting. The ad was paid for by former aides to Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.

In flyers, the Georgia Democratic Party urged blacks to support Democrats “to prevent another Ferguson,” a reference to the shooting death of a black Missouri teen by white police officer.

Republicans charge Democrats with “race baiting,” while a conservative group, Free At Last PAC, has launched small ad buys featuring a black Republican state senator from Louisiana. Elbert Guillory casts Hagan and Nunn as machine politicians perpetuating a system that dooms millions of blacks to poverty despite decades of social spending.

Yet many blacks say it’s Republicans who force race into the discourse, through everything from more restrictive voting laws like those in North Carolina to unceasing criticism of Obama.

“No sitting president has been so consistently disrespected,” said Clarence Wells, a 48-year-old community center director outside Atlanta. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen in politics.”

Wells noted several benchmarks over the last five-plus years: A stock market that has more than doubled, unemployment rates trending downward, a budget deficit less than half of 2008-09 levels and a drop in the number of citizens without health insurance. He compared that to Nunn’s Republican rival David Perdue repeatedly referring to a “failed presidency” and, as Republican campaigns have done across the country, ridiculing the Democratic nominee as a “rubber stamp” for Obama.

“None of the accomplishments matters to them,” Wells said. “Their goal is to undo everything the man has done.”

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Robertson reported from Greenville, North Carolina. On Twitter, follow Bill Barrow at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP and Gary D. Robertson at https://twitter.com/garydrobertson.

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