ENPR: Race Talk Bogs Down Obama

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: On Monday we received with great sadness the news that, due to his recently diagnosed brain tumor, Bob Novak was retiring from his column and also from his role as editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report. Novak has edited ENPR since he and Rowland Evans launched it in 1967.


Per the succession plan we worked out last summer with Bob, Eagle Publishing will continue to publish ENPR under the leadership of Senior Reporter Timothy P. Carney, a protégé of Bob’s who has worked by his side for years. In his 2007 memoirs, The Prince of Darkness, Novak described Carney as "maybe my best political reporter since I began hiring them in 1982." Carney is also a contributing editor at Human Events and a weekly columnist for the Washington Examiner.

Of course we fully expect Bob, our editor emeritus, to continue to look over Tim’s shoulder, officially or unofficially, and that you, as a reader, will continue to get the same accurate, insightful, and concise predictions and analysis you have come to expect from the ENPR team.


  1. Sen. John McCain, this week, should be increasingly confident of his chances in this election that he has no business winning. Running against a popular, rhetorically skilled opponent in a disastrous year for the GOP, McCain is hanging on in national polls and the Electoral College count. The closeness of the race could reflect a deep unease about Sen. Barack Obama among Democrats and independents.
  2. Discussion of race, injected into the presidential campaign this past week, hurts Obama and helps McCain when conducted on the national stage. Multiple accusations or insinuations of racism or race-baiting by Obama’s campaign and his supporters risk turning off white independent voters.
  3. Iraq has continued to fade from the public consciousness. On Iraq, no news is good news—which is bad news for Obama. If Republicans can succeed in channeling economic worries into anger at gasoline prices, the party’s drilling-reliant political strategy could mitigate some of the electoral bloodshed the GOP is bracing for this fall.


Racial Issues: A standard Obama comment about Republican attacks, combined with a McCain ad regarding Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, has brought race to the fore for the first time in this general election.

  1. During Obama’s primary battle against Sen. Hillary Clinton, we wrote: "When race becomes more important, Obama suffers. To the extent Obama looks like ‘the black candidate,’ he has slim support outside his two bases of black voters and white hard-core liberals." To some extent, that is true today. Obama made a mistake by bringing up race.
  2. The maxim that race is a loser for Obama, however, is less true in the general election than it was in the primary, where "electability" was a chief reason for Democrats to worry about Obama’s race. Before the Iowa caucuses, many supporters of Clinton or John Edwards argued that Obama’s skin color made him unelectable.
  3. Obama’s recent comments—that Republicans would attack him on the grounds that "he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills," was an echo of an earlier charge that GOP attacks boil down to "and did I mention he’s black?" It’s important to note both of these jabs were made before white audiences. This suggests Obama is trying to stoke white guilt. (The alternative—that he is trying to stoke black resentment—is simply not believable, given Obama’s track record.)
  4. The main effect of Obama’s accusing his rivals of planning race-based attacks against him is to make critics wary of harshly criticizing him. This is part of his strategy of creating the rules of debate: It is off-limits as the "old politics" of division to talk about abortion, the continued terrorist threat, Obama’s record, or his inexperience. The "did I mention he’s black?" slur is the second half of this strategy: Label all character critiques as racial, in the hope of preserving the pristine reformer image he has crafted for himself.
  5. McCain’s campaign hit back hard, accusing Obama of "playing the race card." This forced Obama’s campaign to implausibly deny that he was accusing McCain of attacking him on racial grounds. The Obama campaign’s immediate tack to the defensive, however, shows their understanding that a front-page discussion of race is a loser for them. Obama’s campaign would benefit from discussing race only among supporters and off the record with the media, but on a broader scale—in a very white country with many voters still wary of a black president—talking about race still hurts Obama.
  6. McCain’s ad comparing Obama to pop stars Britney Spears and Paris Hilton was juvenile and petty in itself, but it could accomplish its goals. The message of the ad was that, like these celebrities, Obama is famous more for being famous than for any accomplishments or skills. The reaction by liberal writers and bloggers, sniffing out racism and anti-miscegenation innuendo in the ads was ridiculous and self-defeating. If Obama’s backers continue to cry "racism," it will hurt Obama more than it will silence his critics.
  7. While Obama may have success with his broader strategy of setting down the "rules" for the campaign—the campaigns may only talk about Iraq, the economy, and George Bush—this attempt to blend all character criticisms with racial attacks was heavy handed, and it backfired on Obama.


Energy: The staged GOP recess protest on the House floor has attracted some attention towards their top (maybe only) issue of the summer: domestic drilling as a solution to high energy prices.

  1. Trying to capitalize on a slow news week, about 20 Republicans, led by Representatives Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Tom Price (R.-Ga.), have conducted a political spectacle reflecting the GOP’s extreme confidence in (and reliance on) the drilling issue.
  2. The "guerilla" Congress has mostly been conservative members, but Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) immediately joined the throng, issuing a letter in support. They came to the floor this week to continue pressing on the issue.
  3. The protest has helped expose a rift on the Left. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), presumably looking at the same poll numbers as Republicans, is steadfast in averting confrontation on the issue—which is why she blocked any votes. Meanwhile, liberal groups such as want to fight back, and launch a true defense of drilling restrictions.
  4. Obama’s struggle to find his footing on this issue demonstrates the Democratic energy dilemma. Over the weekend Obama stated that he would be willing to compromise on a drilling amendment, much to the chagrin of his liberal supporters. He was also widely ridiculed after he lectured Americans to keep their tires "properly inflated" to conserve energy. Earlier in the campaign he mocked Republican drilling proposals as a "gimmick."
  5. Republicans and some conservatives in the media have claimed that GOP attention to oil drilling has driven down oil prices and gasoline prices. This claim, appearing implausible, is not likely to be a political winner.
  6. Republicans are winning the energy debate and will continue to highlight the issue until Democrats are forced to either renew the existing offshore ban when it expires on September 30, or allow it expire. Democrats need to hope for prices to come down and stay down until the election. Whether they have a legislative way to bring that about (such as releasing fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) is unclear.

Yesterday’s Results

Georgia Senate: DeKalb Co. CEO Vernon Jones (D), who had finished first in the July 15 primary, lost badly to State Rep. Jim Martin (D) in the runoff yesterday. Jones, who is black, garnered 40% in the six-way primary last month to Martin’s 34%, but all the eliminated candidates united behind Martin, who is white. Martin won yesterday’s primary with 60% of the vote, and he will face Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) in November.

Jones’s outspokenness and abrasive style did not endear him to most Democratic voters, who also worried about his electability. Martin will be a stronger general election candidate, but still the underdog. Likely Republican Retention.

Kansas-2: State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (R) knocked off former Rep. Jim Ryun (R) by 1,000 votes yesterday, blocking Ryun from his desired rematch with Rep. Nancy Boyda (D), who unseated Ryun in 2006. Jenkins is a pro-choice moderate with a record of increasing taxes as a state legislator, and Ryun is a pro-life conservative. The bruising primary was fought along this ideological divide in this Republican-leaning district.

This moderate-conservative fault line runs to the bedrock in Kansas’s GOP. It’s often said that Kansas has three parties: the Democrats, the moderate Republicans, and the conservative Republicans. The divide between the last two is often deeper and almost always more bitter than the divide between the GOP and the Democrats. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) would not be in office today were it not for moderate refusal to back conservatives.

Boyda is widely understood to be one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, but Democrats will pour cash into holding onto this seat. Will Republicans invest in Jenkins? Will the divisive primary leave many Republicans bitter towards Jenkins? If the GOP unifies (and Ryun made conciliatory efforts Tuesday night) Jenkins should win. But with a huge cash advantage, the incumbent has to be counted as the early favorite. Leaning Democratic Retention.

Michigan-13: Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D) eked out a win in yesterday’s primary, surviving the political damage caused by her continued support of her son, indicted Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D).

Mayor Kilpatrick was indicted on perjury charges in March for lying about his affair with a former chief staff, and Rep. Kilpatrick has stood firmly by his side, bearing some costs politically. State Rep. Mary Waters (D) fell 1,700 votes short of defeating Kilpatrick, who won with 39 percent of the vote. State Sen. Martha Scott (D) split the anti-Kilpatrick vote with Waters, pulling in 24 percent.

In this black and overwhelmingly Democratic district in Detroit, Kilpatrick should be safe in the fall. Likely Democratic Retention.

Missouri Governor: Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) defeated State Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) to earn the GOP nomination for the open-seat governor race. Atty. Gen. Jay Nixon (D) easily won the Democratic nomination.

Hulshof, who had the backing of the state’s GOP establishment, won 49% to 45% over Steelman, who opposed ethanol subsidies and had the backing of reform-minded Republicans. Gov. Matt Blunt (R) is retiring after only one term, and Nixon is the favorite in the general election. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

Missouri-9: Former State Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) won the five-way primary yesterday in the race to succeed Hulshof, running for governor. Luetkemeyer’s 40% put him well ahead of second-place finisher Bob Onder (R).

Democrats nominated State Rep. Judy Baker (D) over Public Utility Commissioner Steve Gaw (D). As with any GOP-held open seat this year, this race could become competitive, but a Luetkemeyer-Baker race tilts towards Luetkemeyer. Likely Republican Retention.