(Bloomberg) -- The sudden collapse of voting-rights legislation this week is emerging as the final straw for Black voters with President Joe Biden, threatening to drive down turnout from a key Democratic bloc in November elections with the party’s control of Congress at stake.
Biden’s hopes for passing the voting-rights measure were squashed last week when two Democratic senators joined all 50 Republicans in refusing to change Senate rules to allow it to pass with a simple majority, despite Biden’s impassioned speech in Georgia the day before. That loss follows Democrats’ failure to pass police reform legislation and Biden’s economic agenda, which he billed as aid to low-income and minority voters with cradle-to-grave social spending.
That legislative losing streak has frustrated Black voters who form the bedrock of the Democratic base. Activists say that Biden owes them a debt after African-American support helped him win the nomination in 2020 following embarrassing primary defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Biden carried 87% of the Black vote in the last presidential election, but his approval rating among that bloc has plummeted in the past year from 78% to 57%, according to a Jan. 12 Quinnipiac poll. Black voters’ approval of congressional Democrats is also down from 70% last April to 57% this week.
Democrats need Black Americans to vote in order to win. Even while they comprise 13% of the U.S. population, they are the dominant Democratic voters in large cities and Southern states like South Carolina, which put Biden on the path to the White House. It’s unlikely they would turn to Republicans, who get only 14% approval, according to Quinnipiac, but they might not turn out to vote, costing Democrats needed victories.
“Bleak, bleak, bleak,” is how House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn described in a telephone interview the Democrats’ prospects in November if voting rights legislation isn’t passed by autumn.
The longtime ally of the president said Black voters are frustrated.
“There are a lot of base voters not happy,” Clyburn said. “So if you look at the people who are unhappy, the Republicans are never going to be happy, independents who, you know, pick and choose when to be happy, and Black people who need Build Back Better and these voting bills in order to be happy. That’s going to have a very low approval rating.”
African Americans are still lagging economically. The Black unemployment rate rose to 7.1% last month even as the overall labor market improved, and ended 2021 at more than double the jobless rate of White workers.
Donna Brazile, a former Democratic National Committee chair, said that between now and November Democrats have to treat Black voters as if they’re the party’s to lose, instead of assuming their support, much as they do voters who vacillate between one party and another in different election years.
“How do you ensure those who have been with you don’t abandon you,” said Brazile, the first Black woman to run a presidential campaign. “Black voters have to be seen as swing votes. Swing votes mean you talk to voters early and often. Remind them of what President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are doing to make their lives better.”
Brazile pointed to the large delegation of Congressional Black Caucus members, civil rights leaders including Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson in attendance at Biden’s Jan. 11 speech in Atlanta on voting rights, despite the attention given to absences by people like the voting rights activist and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and withering criticism of his speech from some Black activists as too little, too late.
Democrats already are losing gains among suburban voters of all races. In November’s bellwether Virginia gubernatorial election, Republican Glenn Youngkin made inroads in Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs with parents frustrated over coronavirus-related school closures.
Police reform legislation sputtered over the summer, although Biden campaigned on the issue in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Congress blew past a Memorial Day deadline that he set for passage.
Redistricting has compounded the party’s difficulties, especially in GOP-led states. Gerrymandering has diffused the Black and Hispanic votes into multiple districts, rather than allow a majority-Black area of a city to be its own district and elect a Democrat.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pointed Friday to the president’s efforts to open schools, curtail the economic shocks from the coronavirus pandemic, and to appoint a diverse slate of federal judges. She also said that he would continue to fight to keep his campaign promises, including voting rights, police reform and raising the federal minimum wage.
Biden was in a strategic quandary when he took office. He faced dual crises in the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. The 2020 presidential election was particularly divisive, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s election. Yet the new president passed a Covid-19 relief package and a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
It would have been difficult to tackle voting rights out of the gate, said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked for former President Barack Obama.
“There’s the inside, tactically, of what has to happen. Going back some time in my brief conversations with the president and the vice president it was clear where their heart was and it was clear that neither one of them was going to let voting rights go. But I do understand the agitation and the agitation is always for right now,” Belcher said.
But now, Biden and Democrats have lost political capital among Black voters, who perceive that issues dear to them have taken a back seat.
Democrats may slide back on electoral gains they’ve made in key states like Georgia, which Biden won for Democrats in a presidential election for the first time since 1992 and where the party flipped two senate seats, Clyburn said.
Clyburn warned that one of those senators, Raphael Warnock could lose his seat in the November midterms.
“Warnock is certainly in jeopardy. Georgia is ground zero in this issue. And Warnock is probably the biggest trophy for them,” Clyburn said of Republicans.
‘It’s All Happening. It’s Real’
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, said that with current changes in voting laws going into effect this year, and with Republican-led state legislatures considering more changes, Democratic candidates may face peril in November if voters find it difficult to cast their ballots.
“The threat to voting rights is not conceptual,” Albright said. “It’s all happening. It’s real.”
Clyburn said that he expects to soon speak with the president about his frustrations with the lack of progress.
“I probably will. I don’t know about advice, but I’ll talk to him,” Clyburn said. “However I’m feeling at the time I’ll tell him. I don’t know how I’m gonna feel when I talk to him.”
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