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Register vs. Slate: Round two!

Tom Jackson • Mar 23, 2010 at 6:27 PM

In yesterday's blog, I challenged as simplistic Jacob Weisberg's Slate article claiming that if Sen. Barack Obama loses the fall election, it will only be because he's black.

I want to follow up yesterday's post by talking about a political career that I think challenges the racism-is-everything theory of American politics.

Remember, I'm not saying there's no racism among American voters; if you are unclear on that point, go back and read what I wrote yesterday. I am arguing that racism is not as strong a factor as observers such as Weinberg suggests, and that the vast majority of voters are interested in issues, not race.

Before I moved to Ohio in 2003, I was a political reporter for an Oklahoma newspaper called The Lawton Constitution. Lawton, Okla., is part of the Fourth U.S. House district in Oklahoma. From 1995 to 2002, four terms, the congressman for the district was a black Republican, J.C. Watts.

The Fourth District is largely white and largely rural. In 1994, when Watts ran for an open seat, he defeated a white state lawmaker in the GOP primary, Ed Apple, and then defeated another white candidate, Democrat David Perryman, in the general election.

Watts got 52 percent of the vote, Perryman got 43 percent and an independent got 5 percent.

That's not close, and the gap opened up wider in later elections. In subsequent elections, Watts rolled up 58 percent, 62 percent and 65 percent.

The Fourth District was not a Republican district until Watts won. From 1981 to 1994, it was held by a Democratic congressman, David McCurdy. McCurdy replaced another Democrat, Tom Steed, who had held office since being first elected in 1948. The district probably would have stayed Democratic in 1994 if McCurdy had not made an ill-fated decision to run for the U.S. Senate in what turned out to be a Republican year.

My point is this: If race is all-important, why didn't all of those racist white voters help keep the district in Democratic hands? Shouldn't they at least have allowed a conservative Democratic candidate in a historically Democratic district to run a close race?

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