The unspoken racial factor



Now that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has officially decided to bolt the Republican party and run for the U.S. Senate this fall as an independent, thereby transforming that race into a fascinating three-way free-for-all, political scribes are naturally speculating this morning about his prospects for victory in November. I actually covered a lot of that ground eight days ago, when Crist was busy mulling his move, so I won't repeat myself now. Nor will I focus on conservative Republican Marco Rubio, the tea party favorite whose Senate candidacy has essentially driven the politically moderate Crist right out of the GOP.

Instead, let's talk today about Crist's likely Democratic opponent, Kendrick Meek. More specifically, let's talk about the key aspect of Meeks's candidacy that very few observers seem willing to discuss:

He's black.

There. How hard was that?

This morning, The New York Times analyzed all three candidates, listing their biggest advantages and their biggest challenges. Inexplicably, while discussing Meek's challenges, The Times mentioned only that he's barely known statewide (he's a congressman from the Miami area), and that he'll need a ton of cash to hike his name ID in the far-flung Florida media markets - but wrote not a word about his race.

Yet that happens to be Meek's biggest challenge, for this reason alone:

Since the Reconstruction era of the 1870s, the number of southern blacks elected to the U.S. Senate is exactly zero.

Below the Mason-Dixon line, black Democratic candidates typically fail to win statewide elections. In recent times, three well-qualified blacks have sought Senate seats, only to come up short: Ron Kirk in Texas (he lost in 2002 to John Cornyn), Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee (he lost in 2006 to Bob Corker), and Harvey Gantt in North Carolina (he lost in 1990 and 1996 to Jesse Helms). Indeed, only three blacks - Republican Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, and Illinois Democrats Carol Mosley Braun and Barack Obama - have been elected to the Senate since Reconstruction ended more than 130 years ago.

(It should be noted that Meek is not yet the official Democratic nominee. He first needs to win a party primary, but his sole rival is real estate billionaire Jeff Greene - best known perhaps for tapping Mike Tyson to be best man at his wedding, and for allowing hooker madame Heidi Fleiss to live at his house for a year. Greene also made big money by shorting subprime mortgages. Meek is expected to win the primary.)

Black candidates tend to fare much better in House races - roughly nine percent of all current House members are black - because those districts have large minority populations. Running statewide is very different, especially in the south, and there's no point in denying the potential racial factor even in pluralistic Florida. Indeed, Jesse Helms infamously exploited the factor when he ran against Gantt; in 1990, Helms ran a TV ad depicting a pair of white hands crumpling a job application, coupled with the on-screen assertion that Gantt supported racial quotas. And in the '06 Tennessee Senate race, Harold Ford was ambushed at the eleventh hour by a GOP ad that featured a winking white woman saying "Harold, call me!"

The Florida race won't feature such crude race-baiting, and a decent case can be made that Meek could break the southern jinx merely by mobilizing the Democratic base and prevailing in a three-way contest with 34 percent of the vote. But it wouldn't be a shock if many white swing voters and white conservative Democrats ultimately decide that they feel more comfortable with Charlie Crist.

I'm not suggesting that race is the sole factor in a voter's decision. Nor am I implying that most white voters are subconsciously racist. I'm just noting the historical record, and suggesting that what is past may well be prologue. At minimum, it's simply nuts to ignore this factor in the Florida race, and the potential challenge it poses for Kendrick Meek.