ATLANTA — With Republicans confident of reclaiming control of the U.S. Senate, Democrats are looking to black voters in two southern states to help preserve their majority.
Early voting totals suggest reasons for optimism for Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Democratic hopeful Michelle Nunn in Georgia, as returns from both states show strong turnout in majority Democratic, heavily African-American urban counties. Nunn must offset Republican advantages among whites by having blacks account for about 30 percent of the ballots cast, while Hagan needs the African-American share of the total vote to approach 23 percent, the level it reached in 2008 and 2012.
Republicans say that a sour national mood benefits them, and they insist that early turnout deficits mean only that reliable Democrats are voting early and not changing the bottom line. Either way, both sides agree that black turnout will help decide the contests, and neither side is shying away from race in the campaign's final days.
"There's a lot of an angry white man out there," singer-songwriter Patti Austin told a crowd of several hundred black voters in Georgia. "And they're old. And they're trying to hang on to their pots of gold. So go vote."
In North Carolina, Hagan reminded a gathering of more than 1,000 black Baptists that her Republican opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, shepherded election law changes that shortened the number of early voting days, ended same-day registration during the early voting period and will require photo ID for ballot access starting in 2016.
"We have fought too hard and too long to protect the right to vote. Let's show my opponent just how wrong he is," Hagan said.
Listeners to urban radio stations in North Carolina have heard ads accusing Tillis of leading "the effort to pass the type of 'stand your ground' laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin," referring to the unarmed Florida teen fatally shot in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer, who was acquitted of all charges related to the shooting. The ad was paid for by former aides to Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.
Voters in both states have seen race-related flyers. The Georgia Democratic Party urged blacks to support Democrats "to prevent another Ferguson," a reference to the shooting death of a black Missouri teen by white police officer. In North Carolina, a flyer attributed to "Concerned Citizens of Cumberland County" urged a vote for Hagan to prevent President Barack Obama's impeachment. The background was a black-and-white photo of a lynching.
Republicans charge Democrats with "race baiting," while a conservative group, Free At Last PAC, has launched small ad buys featuring a black Republican state senator from Louisiana. As he has done in ads opposing Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, Elbert Guillory casts Hagan and Nunn as machine politicians perpetuating a system that dooms millions of blacks to poverty despite decades of social spending.
In the anti-Hagan ad, Guillory denounces "limousine liberals who have become our new overseers." In Georgia, he tailors the message to the fact that Nunn is the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, whose popularity cut across racial lines. "Black people are just being used so the royal scepter can be passed from one generation to the next," Guillory says.
Yet many blacks say it's Republicans who force race into the discourse, through everything from more restrictive voting laws like those in North Carolina to unceasing criticism of Obama, an inspirational figure for many African-Americans.
"No sitting president has been so consistently disrespected," said Clarence Wells, a 48-year-old community center director outside Atlanta. "It's the most ridiculous thing I've seen in politics."
Wells noted several benchmarks over the last five-plus years: A stock market that has more than doubled, unemployment rates trending downward, a budget deficit less than half of 2008-09 levels and a drop in the number of citizens without health insurance. He compared that to Nunn's GOP rival David Perdue repeatedly referring to a "failed presidency" and, as GOP campaigns have done across the country, ridiculing the Democratic nominee as a "rubber stamp" for Obama.
"None of the accomplishments matters to them," Wells said. "Their goal is to undo everything the man has done. They've clouded the situation on purpose."
At the Baptist convention where Hagan spoke, 67-year-old Mary Irving of Raleigh said Republican efforts on voting rules "kills your heart for those types of people. You just don't have a good feeling for them anymore."
So far, early voting analyses suggest black voters are engaged.
The Georgia Secretary of State hasn't released detailed demographic breakdowns of early voting, and Georgia voters don't register by party, but early turnout has far exceeded 2010 totals in several majority Democratic, heavily African-American counties. The difference in the metro Atlanta counties Fulton and DeKalb — about 34,000 heading into Friday's final opportunity for in-person early voting — accounts for the entire statewide increase of about 12,600 votes, with another 21,400 or so to spare.
That suggests that Democrats and black voters are, at the least, more motivated than Republicans to vote early.
In North Carolina, blacks make up 22.5 percent of the electorate but had cast 25 percent of in-person early ballots through Thursday. That figure is likely to drop after Election Day, but Democratic strategists say it's a strong enough start for the total African-American share to exceed the 2010 total of 20 percent.
The question is whether that is enough for Hagan and Nunn to overcome the overall margin Republicans typically enjoy in nonpresidential election years.