The U.S. midterm elections on November 7 could be significant for the two largest minority groups in the United States -- African Americans and Hispanics. Latinos could be galvanized by the immigration issue to turn out and vote in larger numbers than ever before. In the case of African Americans, six black candidates are running for either governor or senator this year, a record number seeking higher state-wide office.
Michael Steele -- the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland -- is running for Senator. A Republican, he is one of six African American candidates of both parties running for higher office in the United States this election year -- a record.
"If you combine the number of gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, 2006 is the highest ever," says David Bositis, who specializes in black electoral politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
"It is part of a trend. Remember, African Americans were effectively kept from most offices for many years. But there are now more and more African Americans who have the requisite personal characteristics and political experience that permit them to run for these higher-level offices," says Bostic.
The candidates range from Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. a Democrat running for Senate in the southern state of Tennessee, to conservative Republican Ken Blackwell hoping to win the governorship in Ohio. In addition, there are 52 African Americans running for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. All but eight are Democrats.
The Obama Factor
Congressman Elijah Cummings, who is one of 40 black members in the House, welcomes the large number of African American candidates from both parties. Cummings believes this is partly due to the impact of Barack Obama, the charismatic Democratic Senator from Illinois, who was elected in 2004 and is now the country's only black Senator.
"I think that a lot of young people saw Barack Obama, what appeared to be almost overnight, become like a rock star. They saw this bright, sharp Harvard-educated young man and a lot of them began to look at themselves and say, 'I can do that too,'" says Cummings.
African Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, though this may be changing according to Karlyn Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute. "African Americans are the Democrats' most loyal constituency, voting by huge numbers for Democratic candidates. There's a hint in some of the data that younger African Americans are less Democratic," says Bowman. "They're not necessarily more Republican, they're calling themselves Independents and that may indicate some long-term change. But for the time being, for African Americans who turn out, they are going to vote very, very heavily for Democratic [Party] candidates."
And that may hinder the chances of the three black Republicans running for higher office. Neither Blackwell in Ohio nor Lynn Swann, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, appear to have made much headway with black voters. And opinion polls show both men trailing far behind their Democratic opponents.
The Maryland race may be different. Michael Steele is hoping to attract enough black and independent voters to win, and part of his strategy is to de-emphasize his party affiliation in his campaign ads. However, it is a tactic he has had to defend. "Everyone, I think, knows I'm a Republican and quite frankly I've not seen a Democrat ad at the start say 'Hi, I'm a Democrat', so why do I have to live by a separate standard?," says Steele.
If any one of these candidates wins in November, it would be a significant milestone for African Americans. It was only in 1990 that Douglas Wilder in Virginia became the first black governor to be elected in any state in more than 100 years. This year Democrat Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has a very good chance of becoming the country's second black governor in recent history. Should Harold Ford win in Tennessee, he would be the first black Senator from the south in 125 years.
The Hispanic Vote and Immigration
For Hispanics, voter turnout is the focus this election year instead of groundbreaking candidates. An estimated 17 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote this November. However, in 2004, only 47 percent of eligible Hispanics went to the polls, compared to 67 percent of whites and 60 percent of blacks. Yet this election may be different, judging by the mass rallies held earlier this year to demand immigration reform and protest measures to stiffen penalties on illegal immigrants.
Advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza are working to register more Latino voters. La Raza's Clarissa Martinez says Latinos will judge candidates on their position on immigration. "The anti-immigration climate in the country has been largely identified with the Republican Party and the members that are most definitely at its forefront happen to be Republican. But I think that this has been a black eye for Republican Party," says Martinez. "I think that people are trying to see who really leads the Republican Party. Is it the anti-immigrant wing or is it the wing that believes that we are a nation of immigrants and that we need to figure out how to solve this problem."
But political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the immigration issue also could galvanize Republican voters. "There's some anger, particularly on the part of conservatives, about illegal immigrants in this country and they could turn out," says Rothenberg. "And even moderate and independent voters feel that anger, and resent the number of illegal immigrants here and the benefits they get by living here. So that's a potential issue actually for Republicans that's under the surface."
How Americans feel about issues such as immigration -- and the candidacies of African Americans seeking higher office -- will be decided in November when voters go to the polls.