In Final Push for Votes, Both Parties Court Black Men

Jonathan Williamson comes from a long line of Georgia Democrats. Growing up, his parents voted Democrat, his grandmother voted Democrat. So did most of his friends and neighbors. And for a while, Mr. Williamson did, too.

Now the 29-year-old, who is Black, says it is no longer automatic for him.

Mr. Williamson, a homebuilder who considers himself “more of a Republican because of taxes,” has already voted in Georgia’s highly competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor. He declined to reveal his choices but has said that he was thinking of casting his vote to re-elect Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican. And he chafed at the notion that he should vote along party lines.

“What if I like Brian Kemp as governor, but I like Warnock over Herschel?” he said, referring to Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who is running for re-election, and Herschel Walker, his Republican rival.

Black men for decades have been among the most reliable segments of the Democratic voting bloc, and they still overwhelmingly support Democrats.

But days before the midterm election, Democratic candidates are fighting to energize Black male voters, and Republicans, sensing an opportunity, are working to persuade them to reconsider political allegiances.

In places such as North Carolina, Georgia and Wisconsin, where tight polls suggest that races there will most likely come down to thousands of votes, Black men could play a deciding role in which party controls governorships and the U.S. Senate. Republicans want to chip away at the Democratic share of such a crucial voting bloc, while Democrats want to avoid defections.

That has led to an unusual moment in the political spotlight for Black male voters, with both parties tailoring their messages, especially around the economy, toward Black men.

“Republicans have identified a new swing voter,” said Terrance Woodbury, co-founder of HIT Strategies, a Democratic polling firm. Democrats are “going to have to treat Black men like a persuasion target and start giving them a reason to vote for you and not just tell them the other guy’s bad.”

In October, 13 percent of Black men surveyed in a nationwide poll said they would prefer a Republican candidate for Congress in the 2022 midterms, up from 9 percent in January, according to polling done by HIT Strategies. Twelve percent said they were undecided, and 72 percent said they supported the Democratic Party.

Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said his research shows a small segment of Black men have supported Republicans for decades, and at a consistently higher rate than Black women. That support from Black men has generally fluctuated from around 11 to 15 percent.

The difference now is that some races are expected to be so close, even a small expansion of support to Republicans could tip the scales, leading the parties to focus on Black men, candidates and consultants have said. They have yet to make significant inroads with Black women, who vote for Democrats more often, in higher numbers and are considered less persuadable.

Securing the votes of Black men is especially crucial in Georgia, where the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, has struggled to match the same level of support she received from Black men during her first run for governor four years ago.

During an August campaign event, Ms. Abrams said: “If Black men vote for me, I’ll win Georgia.” Those words reinforced the view that Black men were a must-win voting bloc and invited additional scrutiny of Democrats’ engagement with them.

The Abrams campaign says it is engaging with Black men and points to analysis from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that shows high rates of early voting, especially among Black voters. Her campaign has hosted a number of events focused specifically on Black men and has called on a number of Black male surrogates in the Atlanta area like the radio personality Big Tigger and rapper Yung Joc to promote her candidacy.

During a recent episode of The New York Times podcast “The Run-Up,” Ms. Abrams pushed back on the notion that her outreach to Black men was a sign of weakness rather than normal voter engagement.

As it is with many voters, the economy is top of mind for Black men. And economic concerns are driving some Black men to consider the Republican Party, according to interviews with two dozen Black male voters, strategists and pollsters in the weeks leading up to the election. Many of these men interviewed say they are focused on opportunities to build wealth and provide for their families.

Even those voting for Democrats say the Republican Party offers a political message that speaks to their aspirations, not just their fears.

Arthur Lee, a 65-year-old from Wisconsin, says he is voting for Democrats this year despite some unease. Democrats are offering “a message of lack and despair,” he said. “And it keeps people down. I don’t think the Democrats have done a good job at all of messaging hope and abundance.”

Mr. Lee, who operates a tax resolutions company, has voted for Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, in the past, but now cannot stomach the senator’s insistence that the presidential election was stolen.

The Democratic Party share of the Black male vote has eroded since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, when his Republican opponent, John McCain, won only 5 percent of the Black male vote. In 2020, President Trump won 19 percent.

Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, increased his support among Black male voters to 10 percent in 2020 from 5 percent in 2014, according to Mr. Woodbury of HIT Strategies. If Black men had voted for Mr. Tillis’s Democratic opponent at the same rate as Black women, he would have won, Mr. Woodbury said.

David Foxx, 37, was proud to vote for Mr. Obama in 2008 and see a Black family in the White House. “I cried when the man got elected,” said Mr. Foxx, a socially conservative graduate student in North Carolina. But he soon grew disillusioned with what he described as an increasingly secularized Democratic Party that moved further to the left on social issues.

And despite his admiration for Mr. Obama, he considered his presidency a disappointment. “For all of the pomp and circumstance, has Black America improved substantially?” he recalled asking himself. “Are more Black men working? Are we making better money? Are more of us graduating? Are more of us married and forming good families?”

From 2016 to 2019, during the Trump administration, the median Black household saw its wealth increase by about 33 percent, and the white-Black wealth gap shrank — the median white household had roughly eight times the total assets of the median Black household, down from 10 times the amount — according to the Federal Reserve.

Democrats, aware of their vulnerability on economic issues, are targeting Black men with ads touting laws that they say saved jobs, prevented evictions and kept Black-owned businesses open during the pandemic. “The pandemic was rough, but I held down my job, and I’ve been able to support my family,” a Black man says in one radio spot from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Mr. Foxx said he agreed with the Republican Party 51 percent of the time. “I think a lot of us feel like they can do a better job at managing the economy,” and Black men “are not as socially liberal” as the Democratic Party, he said. He has already voted for Ted Budd, North Carolina’s Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.

Howard Eddie, 51, a concert promoter who lives in Milwaukee, said he experienced extreme poverty as a child in Harlem. “I’ve seen people eat dog food for dinner,” he said. But he added that through hard work, discipline and perseverance, he became successful in business later in life. That’s why he “mostly” agrees with the Republican Party’s message of “get out there and earn your money.”

Still, Mr. Eddie said support for policies such as Pell grants and student loan access, which helped him afford college, has kept him voting for Democrats. He said he supported both Democrats atop the ticket: Gov. Tony Evers for re-election and Mandela Barnes for Senate.

Dwayne Bledsoe, a trucking company owner based in Atlanta who attended a recent round-table event with Mr. Kemp, said that Ms. Abrams had not spoken “to an issue that would be of my concern.” He added that he had never experienced voter suppression, an issue that Democratic candidates and voting rights activists have raised repeatedly during the campaigns. Worries over voting rights, he argued, were overblown.

“Black people are just not all the same” and “we’re not all fighting the same struggles,” he said.

Equal rights and fairness are important, “but at the end of the day, that dollar is what makes the decision,” Mr. Williamson, the home builder, said during a discussion organized by Black Men Decide, a nonpartisan group that aims to increase political involvement among Black men.

Don Davis, a Black state senator who is the Democratic candidate in North Carolina’s First Congressional District, said he was hoping to reach about 45,000 likely Black male voters, through ads touting his support for lowering prescription drug prices, increasing the minimum wage, and funding historically Black colleges and universities.

Mr. Davis is pitching himself to Black men as someone who, by expanding rural health care centers, can bridge generational concerns between older voters who are concerned about medical care and younger ones who need jobs.

Zack Hawkins, a Democratic Black representative seeking re-election to the North Carolina House of Representatives, said he has heard from disaffected Black male voters for years but that their discontent seems to be growing. Republicans have started to notice and “you’re seeing it in their recruitment efforts,” he said. Some Black men appreciate the intentionality of these efforts, and Democrats should be concerned, he added.

Mr. Hawkins said his strategy has been to engage Black men on issues such as “the protection of our children, strong education, path to entrepreneurship, and paths to jobs that help put food on the table.”

Republicans say they have been pouring resources into Black voter outreach but also say they harbor no delusions that they will get Black men to flock to their party in numbers that rival the Democrats. But in order to gain electoral success, particularly in states like Georgia, they do not have to.

“When we’re talking about a state that is so close,” said Savannah Viar, the southeast regional communications director for the Republican National Committee, “those little cuts add up.”

Source link