Wednesday, July 26, 2006

That Other August 8 Primary

It's pretty safe to say the progressive blogosphere is saturated with endless commentary and cheerleading about the August 8 Connecticut Primary involving Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont. But a very interesting runoff election will occur that same day in my old stomping grounds, the 4th Congressional District of Georgia. The inimitable Rep. Cynthia McKinney will face little-known Dekalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson, who stunned observers by denying McKinney a majority in the July 18 primary (she won 47 percent to Johnson's 44 percent, with a third, anti-McKinney candidate taking the balance of votes). And from what I'm hearing, it ain't looking good for the fiery lefty veteran.

The rumor down in Dekalb is that Johnson is raising enormous sums of money for the runoff, some of it, no doubt, from Jewish Democrats who have always resented McKinney's outspoken pro-Palestinian views. (The night before McKinney lost her seat in 2002 to primary challenger Denise Majette, her father, then-state Rep. Billy McKinney, told a television audience that Cynthia's only problem was spelled "J-E-W-S." In a nice touch of irony, McKinney pere lost his own legislative seat the next day, in a huge upset, to a Jewish primary opponent.) McKinney has never been much of a fundraiser, and the voting patterns in the primary led a lot of observers to conclude that her once-legendary GOTV prowess is not what it used to be.

Aside from money, McKinney has two big political problems. The first is that Georgia has no party registration, and her notoriety may tempt some of the district's small but significant Republican electorate to cross over; so long as they did not vote in the Republican primary on July 18, which had a very low turnout, they are free to do so. Indeed, McKinney blamed her 2002 loss to crossover voters, though the size of her defeat indicated she lost a majority of Democrats as well.

But her bigger problem is her weakness among the district's large and growing African-American middle- and upper-middle-class population. They represent the political fulcrum of Dekalb County, and are much more likely to turn out for a runoff than the poorer black voters who have always served as McKinney's base.

Given her situation and her personality, I'd expect some real fireworks from McKinney between now and August 8. She has always been fast to play the race card (viz. her immediate suggestion that her recent dustup with a Capitol Hill cop was motivated by racism and sexism), and the fact that her opponent is a fellow African-American won't deter her. Indeed, she won her first primary back in 1992 in no small part by charging that her two African-American opponents were puppets of the state's white political establishment.

And there's no question she will allege a conspiracy to purge her from Congress. McKinney loves conspiracy theories the way a drunk loves a belt of Ten High before breakfast. Her suggestion that perhaps the White House had advance warning about 9/11 and deliberately let it happen helped paint a political bullseye on her back in 2002. And on this latest primary night, even as Cynthia was line dancing with her new friend Cindy Sheehan in front of the cameras, her staff and supporters were muttering darkly about a Diebold Conspiracy orchestrated by Secretary of State Cathy Cox to shift votes from McKinney to Johnson. (You'd think if Cox had the capacity to manipulate votes this way, she might have stolen enough votes from Mark Taylor to keep the Big Guy from narrowly winning a majority against her in the gubernatorial primary, eh?).

But my guess is that McKinney has finally run out of luck. She got back into Congress in 2004 thanks to an extraordinary stroke of luck: Denise Majette's abrupt decision, shocking her own staff and certainly dismaying supporters who knew McKinney was mulling a comeback, to abandon her seat and launch a doomed Senate campaign. (In a side note, Majette has launched her own comeback effort, winning the Democratic nomination for state school superintendant).

The word back home in 2004 was that McKinney had learned her lesson, and though her views were as lefty-lefty as ever, she kept a much lower profile on the campaign trail, and in Washington--until the little incident at the metal detectors in the Cannon Building. For the record, I think the whole brouhaha was ridiculous, especially the serious consideration apparently given to indicting McKinney for biffing the Capitol Hill officer with her cell phone. But it served as a reminder to many of her constituents that she remains a bit of a loose cannon in Cannon, and gave Hank Johnson the opening he needed to take advantage of the large if latent anti-McKinney vote.

In any event, even as every hep blogger in Christendom obsessively follows the vote count in Connecticut on August 8, Georgia will be very much on my mind. No matter what happens, I'll relish the returns from my old neighborhood in Stone Mountain like a Varsity chili dog. Maybe McKinney will find a way to save her career one more time, but I personally doubt she and Cindy Sheehan will have much to dance about that night.
-- Posted at 3:09 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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