Web exclusive 8/29/02
Lessons from Rep. Cynthia McKinney's defeat
By Michael Barone
There remains something to be said about the defeat of Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Georgia primary last week.
Most of the commentary paired the defeats of McKinney in the state's fourth district and GOP Rep. Bob Barr in the seventh district: Two extremists given to explosive rhetoric were defeated by voters more interested in calm, constructive citizenship. But the two defeats were very different. Barr was defeated by another Republican incumbent, John Linder, in a new district drawn by Democrats. Linder had represented much more of the new district than Barr had. Anyone looking at the boundaries of the new and old district, without knowing anything else, would have predicted that Linder would beat Barr by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. That is exactly what happened. Barr may have risen in polls because of clever ads showing him as a strong advocate (the vision metaphor was a stallion) for conservative causes. He may have been hurt when a gun handed him at a campaign event went off. But it would have been a big upset for Barr to win. His defeat may remove a strong voice for civil liberties as well as other conservative causes in the House. But it was not politically remarkable.
McKinney's defeat was. She had represented almost all the district for either eight or 10 years (there was a redistricting between the 1994 and 1996 elections), and her opponent was a former judge, not another incumbent. In such a situation the incumbent usually wins by a wide margin. But McKinney lost by a solid 58 percent to 42 percent.
Much was made, by McKinney and by journalists, of a Republican crossover vote against her. But technically there is no such thing as a crossover in Georgia, which (like my home state of Michigan) does not have party registration. Any voter can vote for any party's candidates in any primary. But how many crossovers were there? The new fourth district, according to best estimates, voted for Al Gore over George W. Bush by a margin of 70 percent to 29 percent in 2000. Presumably at least some behavioral Republicans were unwilling to vote for a Democratic candidate for one reason or another; it's likely that fewer than 20 percent of primary voters were behavioral Republicans (about the same percentage as that of behavioral Democrats in the Republican presidential primary in Michigan, who helped swing that contest to John McCain).
Moreover, the fourth district is a majority black district50 percent in 1990 within the boundaries of the old district, surely greater than 50 percent in 2000 within the slightly different boundaries of the new district. Given the heavy preference of black voters for the Democratic Party, it's likely that 60 percent of the voters in the August 20 primary were black. From the newspaper coverage, it appears that Denise Majette, McKinney's opponent, was carrying heavily white precincts in north DeKalb County and the district's portion of Gwinnett County by about a 95 percent- to-5 percent margin. Assuming all nonblack voters voted this way and that they constituted 40 percent of the turnout, then McKinney carried black voters by a 67 percent to 33 percent margin. This is of course a clear majority of blacks, but it is nothing like the nearly unanimous percentages many black incumbents typically win among black voters in both primary and general elections.
How did McKinney get herself in such political trouble? By taking extravagant radical stands. Most notably, she charged that George W. Bush may have known about the September 11 attacks in advance and allowed them to happen in order to make profits for the Carlyle Group, an owner of defense contractors with which former President Bush has connections. "It is known that President Bush's father, through the Carlyle Group, hadat the time of the attacksjoint business interests with the bin Laden construction company and many defense industry holdings, the stocks of which have soared since September 11," she said last April. Georgia's Democratic Senator Zell Miller called her comments "loony." When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rejected Saudi Prince Alwaleed's offer of $10 million to aid New York because of the Saudi's anti-Israel statements appended to the offer, McKinney wrote the prince and offered to take the money to help her constituents. "There are a growing number of people in the United States who recognize, like you, that U.S. policy in the Middle East needs serious examination." The Council on American-Islamic Relations sent out an E-mail asking people to "support Cynthia McKinney ... Pro-Muslim candidate. Supporter of Palestinian State for over 7 years. Against Secret Evidence. Against Aid to Israel." Some three-quarters of McKinney's contributions came from people with Muslim or Arab names, most from outside Georgia. She received contributions from people under federal investigation for links to terrorists and from people who have voiced support for Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Middle East. In response to criticism, McKinney said she would not "racially profile" her contributors.
Even larger sums of money poured into Majette's campaign in July and August, mostly from outside Georgia, presumably from supporters of Israel or people repelled by McKinney's radical statements or her support from those linked to terrorism. McKinney's father Billy McKinney, an Atlanta state representative, when asked just days before the primary to explain why she ran, claimed the endorsement of former U.S. congressman and ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young (who had endorsed her in earlier campaigns but declined to do so in 2002), and said in front of an Atlanta TV station camera: "That ain't nothin'. Jews have bought everybody. Jews. J. E. W. S."
There are several lessons from McKinney's defeat.
- American voters don't like what they see as bigotry. Despite the advantages of incumbency and racial identification with a majority of voters, Cynthia McKinney was defeated by a solid margin. Obviously very many voters, both black and white, were repelled by the bigotry they saw in the McKinney campaign. Incidentally, Billy McKinney, a legislator for years with a large black majority district, got less than 50 percent of the vote and was forced into a runoffa rare thing for a longtime incumbent.
- American voters vote against candidates supported by and supporting persons with ties to radical Islam and terrorism. This should not be a surprise. After McKinney's defeat, Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of MarylandCollege Park and supporter of Jesse Jackson for president in the 1980s, said, "We are probably past the point that holding elected office is consistent with ... radical politics." Right. Some black politicians with majority black constituencies have assumed that they could go as far left on issues as they wanted to without risking their seats; indeed, many believed that there would always be an advantage for the farthest left candidate. No more.
- American voters, given a choice between a supporter of Arab causes and a supporter of Israel, prefer a supporter of Israel. This was the contrast presented in Georgia 4 and in the June Democratic primary in the Alabama seventh congressional district where incumbent Earl Hilliard was beaten by challenger Artur Davis. As in the Georgia fourth, both candidates and most voters in the district are black. Hilliard was a supporter of Arab causes, Davis of Israel. McKinney and Hilliard sympathizers complain that supporters of Israel from outside the district gave Majette and Davis so much money that they couldn't lose. But Majette and Davis couldn't win unless their issue stands were acceptable to most primary voters. You can spend a lot of money and still lose if the product you're selling isn't acceptable. The contributions to Majette and Davis simply gave McKinney and Hilliard something most incumbents don't haveeffective opposition. But, contra Billy McKinney, votes can't be bought.
- Black American voters are not unanimously swayed by the race card. Denise Majette was called a "Tomette" and the like by the McKinney forces. This didn't prevent her from winning 1 of 3 black votes against an incumbent. Evidently many black voters believed there were other issues more important than who is the most "black." For more than a generation, many black politicians have built their careers around the assumptions that courts would provide them with constituencies with large black majorities and that the way to win in such districts was to hew to the left on issues and play the race card again and again. Those assumptions are now in doubt. The Supreme Court has rejected redistricting plans which produce grotesquely shaped black-majority districts and the Democratic party, in Georgia and elsewhere, has figured out that it is in its interest not to maximize the number of black majority districts but to spread black voters around to several white majority districts where they can (Democrats hope) tilt the balance to the Democrats. Such was the plan in Georgia. The Democratic redistricters could have given McKinney predominantly black Clayton County and could have removed predominantly white- north DeKalb County from the district; McKinney would probably have been renominated in such a district, though by an unimpressive margin. But instead they used Clayton County as the nucleus of a new, high black majority district that they hope will go Democratic. This is smart politics for the Democratic party, and the apparently unintended consequencethe defeat of McKinneyis good politics for the Democratic party, too.
It's also good for the country. It's evidence that we are getting beyond the time when we have a black politics separate from the politics of the rest of the country. Ethnic origins will still count for something, as they always have in America, but ethnicity will be a factor that can be trumped by other things. Black politicians will now see that they have a political incentive not to move left and toward racial appeals, away from the rest of the electorate, but to move to the center and to try to appeal to a majority made up of voters of all backgrounds. This will put more black politicians in a position where they can become credible statewide candidates (as Rep. Harold Ford Jr., has done in Tennessee). American voters generally are more than ready to elect black senators (as they did in Massachusetts in 1966 and 1972 and in Illinois in 1992) and governors (as they did in Virginia in 1989), and black candidate, so long as they are comparatively rare, will have an easy time gaining name identification. But so far few such candidates have appeared, because for years most black legislators and mayors were way out on the extreme left. Now more are closer to the center, and the defeat of Cynthia McKinney sends a cue to other black politicians, current and would-be, that the road to political success is not her road.
The only possible bad news here is that McKinney has said she may run for the Senate in 2004. The seat that is up is currently held by Zell Miller, who never really wanted to be a senator anyway (he was appointed to fill the vacancy caused by the unexpected death of Republican Paul Coverdell) and who turns 72 in 2004; he is widely expected to retire. Miller would obviously clobber McKinney in a primary, but she could conceivably finish first in a multicandidate primary. She would lose the runoff, of course. But in the meantime she would provide the Democratic party with an image it doesn't need and provide Georgia and the nation generally with the spectacle of a politics they can do quite nicely without.