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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

Blacks Play Pivotal Role in Party Wins

Politics: African Americans, joined by Latinos, give unexpected boost to Democrats. Some GOP candidates also benefit from their votes.

November 05, 1998|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — African Americans are among the Democratic Party's most dependable voters. Latinos lean that way. But it was not a foregone conclusion, given recent turnout trends, whether either group would show up strongly at the polls Tuesday.

Both groups arrived in huge numbers, however, giving Democratic candidates in House, Senate and gubernatorial races an unexpected boost.

The Democrats' resulting strong showing, especially in the South, prompted some political analysts to suggest that the party now has a strategy for regaining ground in Dixie and for recapturing Congress.

"The Democrats have some candidates they can go to school with now," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "The election results should give the Democrats some confidence [that] they can win in the future."

But Democrats were not the only beneficiaries. Across the nation, black and Latino voters provided key support to winning candidates--including, sometimes, Republicans. Texas Gov. George W. Bush collected about half (49%) of the Latino vote and more than a quarter (27%) of the black votes cast.

"That's got to be a record for a Republican to get that much black and Hispanic support in Texas," said Earle Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston and an expert on Southern politics. "It's big news when a Southern, white Republican breaks 9% of the black vote, and that's got to be the best by far a Republican has done statewide in Texas with the Hispanic vote."

But across the South, Democrats ruled.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Forrest "Fob" James Jr., who trumpeted the Christian Coalition's call for school prayer, lost his race in Alabama to Democratic challenger Donald Siegelman. Black voters, who accounted for 19% of those voting, gave 95% of their votes to Siegelman. White voters, meanwhile, broke nearly evenly, giving Siegelman 48% and James 51%.

In South Carolina, the situation was repeated with incumbent Gov. David Beasley, a one-term Republican who lost to Democrat Jim Hodges in a three-way race. Beasley, a onetime darling of the Christian Coalition, had lost religious right support during his first term after backing away from issues supported by the group.

David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which tracks black voting patterns, said that minority voters responded to black leaders' call to arms to protect President Clinton from potential impeachment. He noted that black voters seemed less interested in electing black officeholders because none of the Democratic black congressional leaders was seriously challenged, including those with predominantly white districts, such as Rep. Melvin L. Watt in North Carolina and Sanford D. Bishop Jr. and Cynthia A. McKinney in Georgia, all of whom won.

Bositis said a rule of thumb is that Democrats require high voter participation among Southern blacks.

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