While Congressman Artur Davis's stunning loss in his quest to win the Alabama Democratic Gubernatorial nomination was a sad turn for one black man, it was a great moment for black voters. It revealed a heightened level of political sophistication among black primary voters who rejected Davis's "I-don't-need-to-spend-time-on-them-'cause-I-know-they'll-be-with-me" approach to campaigning. black Alabamans did not simply genuflect before a polished black candidate. He gave them nothing; they returned the favor. Davis has ambitiously positioned himself for higher office for some time. In so doing, he took his base for granted. That's the best way to lose an election.
Davis tried to replicate Barack Obama's coalition campaigning by de-emphasizing race. In running from race, he ran from reality -- and a chance to win, as black voters comprise 60 percent of Alabama's Democratic primary electorate. I don't think any reasonable person would expect Artur Davis, Barack Obama, or any other black elected official to legislate or govern with a "black only" philosophy. It's not unreasonable, however, to expect a black candidate to conduct him- or herself with a particularly sensitivity and understanding of the intersection of race and public policy. By acting like that intersection does not exist, Davis told black voters that they and the unique race-based problems facing black Alabamans, in some ways, do not exist.
He legislated in Congress with an eye toward the entire state, sometimes to the detriment of his constituents. Particularly notable was his vote against the health care reform bill passed by Congress this spring. That stupid move revealed a disconnect between his political aspirations and the needs of the voters in his district and throughout the state -- one of the poorest and least insured in the nation. And in unnecessarily stiff-arming black leadership throughout the state in an attempt to win White Democratic voters, he also showed himself to be just another craven politician.
While Davis's loss is largely his own fault, we can not ignore Alabama's conservative culture. At it's core, conservatism is about resistance to changes to the racial, economic, and social status quo. No matter how cute Davis tried to play it, how conservative he tried to portray himself, or how much he tried to fit in, his blackness represented a significant challenge to Alabama's conservative orthodoxy.
His defeat also appears to reveal some remnants of the "Wilder Effect." The New York Times reported that he led his opponent, Ron Sparks, by as much as 10 percentage points in some late polls. However, he got routed by 24 points, winning just 38 percent of the vote. He could have lost that badly by just being a real liberal, so a 34-point swing cannot simply be attributed to just his campaign strategy. Swings like that do not happen without a major screw up by the leader -- a "macaca moment" for example. That didn't happen in this race.
Artur Davis's loss should be a signal to candidates of all stripes. Ambition is fine, but do not take your base for granted. Doing so could have a harmful impact on your electoral goals.
Michael Fauntroy is an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He specializes in race and politics and blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.