With control of the House and Senate up for grabs, Democrats are looking to minority voters — especially black voters who heavily supported President Barack Obama — to turn out and help them forestall a Republican takeover of Congress this November.
Democrats are pushing hard and early to encourage black and Hispanic voters to show up in November, driven in part by fears of a drop-off since Obama won't be on the ballot. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to elevate their party's profile in minority communities to let voters know that the GOP is a viable option.
The leaders of both parties appeared at the National Association of Black Journalists' convention in Boston this week to make their case.
"Races all across the country are going to turn on whether we can get particularly our base vote out to vote," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair, told the gathering on Friday. She appeared via Skype and telephone from Washington because of House votes on immigration prior to its August recess.
At the NABJ convention on July 31, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus touted the GOP's "full-time engagement program" geared to black, Latino and Asian voters. On Friday the GOP launched a Virginia Hispanic Advisory Council to help with recruitment in that state, and has similar efforts underway in California, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
"Instead of getting 6 percent of the black vote in this country, if we get out there and fight and talk to people, can we get 15 (percent)? Can we get 20? And then two years later, can we get 22 and 23?" Priebus said.
Republicans are looking to take a majority in the Senate and increase their advantage in the House, with the president's party usually losing seats in Congress in off-year elections. Democrats, without Obama on the ticket to help boost turnout, hope increased efforts on their part will blunt the Republicans' advantage.
"We have a unique challenge in offsetting drop-off with African American voters, with Hispanic voters and with young female voters and we're tackling those challenges head-on," Steve Israel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told a group of black reporters in Washington earlier this week.
Getting minority voters will be key. Midterm elections typically draw fewer than half of those eligible to vote. For example, in the 2010 congressional and statewide elections, 47.8 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 40.7 percent of blacks, 21.3 percent of Asians and 20.5 percent of Hispanics voted.
The only groups to increase their numbers were blacks and Hispanics, who voted at 38.6 percent and 19.3 percent respectively in the 2006 congressional and statewide elections. The white and Asian participation rates dropped during that same time period, from 50.5 percent and 21.8 percent.
And black participation in off-year elections has been steadily increasing since 1994, when it was 37.1 percent. In 1998, it was 39.6 percent, in 2002 39.7 percent and a slight dip in 2006 at 38.6 percent. No other group showed a similar increase.
The dynamic may have changed for minority voters following Obama's election, where black and Hispanic voters had an obvious effect in helping elect the first black president, said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.
"We got comfortable after 1964, and we haven't been voting again until a black president was elected in 2008 and 2012," Ogletree said. "We now know our votes count, and we know we can carry an election. People just have to get out and actually vote."
Democrats say they welcome the challenge and are confident that minority voters will vote their own interests.
"We can't just become lazy and complacent in reminding people how important they are to us and why our agenda is a better fit," said Mo Elleithee, the communication director for the Democratic National Committee.