ATLANTA — How Georgia Democrats fare in next month's election could depend on whether black voters show up to the polls.
Observers say turnout will be especially key among African-Americans, who turned out in record numbers two years ago across the country to elect President Barack Obama. Obama's absence on the ballot, combined with an overall lack of interest in the midterm vote, will likely mean waning black support this year for Democratic candidates.
"The issue is not whether the African-American vote is some kind of record," said David Bositis of the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "What you're really talking about is black voters turning out at a level comparable to whites."
The state is generally conservative and easily went for John McCain in 2008, making black votes especially crucial.
In Georgia, the top of the Democratic ticket is meant to get the attention of black voters. Senate candidate Mike Thurmond — currently the state's labor commissioner and the only African-American not previously appointed who has won election statewide in Georgia — is also expected to appeal to blacks in November. He is running against Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson.
"My guess is the reason Mike Thurmond did not seek re-election and instead is matched up against the most popular politician in the state is there is a hope on the part of Democrats that by having him on the top of the ticket it might energize black voters," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "It doesn't look like it's having that kind of impact."
Bositis said that though his odds for victory are slim, Thurmond's statewide appeal could be an asset to Barnes and other Democrats.
"If he can bring out a small percentage more black voters, there will potentially be some close races where that might make a difference," he said.
Barnes, like many Democrats across the country, has distanced himself from Obama during his campaign. But he has attempted to appeal to blacks in other ways, picking up early endorsements from former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, civil rights icon Andrew Young, members of the black clergy and current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, all of whom carry weight in the black community.
"What he's done is tried to bring together the black leadership behind him," said Clark Atlanta University political science professor William Boone. "What he's hoping that will do for him that those folks will carry the water for him in the black community. He needs them to put the message out that Barnes is OK."
In 2008, three out of four registered black voters in Georgia cast ballots, and black turnout was a record 30 percent of overall turnout in Georgia. Historically, Georgia's black voters have comprised between 23 percent and 25 percent.
This year, blacks make up about 30 percent of Georgia's 5.8 million registered voters. African-Americans are among the most loyal Democrats and a core constituency in the party. With Republicans motivated this election cycle, the black vote could be crucial for Democrats in countering GOP support.
Most will not likely be turned off by Democrats who aren't aligning themselves with the president, whose popularity among African-Americans remains high, Bositis said.
"Black voters are very sophisticated," he said. "African-Americans know that's part of the game. They're not going to hold it against those Democrats. Black voters know that whatever else these guys do, they have to get elected."