Here Comes the New Wave of Barack Obamas

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Harold Ford may be in one of the most closely watched electoral contests this year, but he's far from the only African-American candidate running in a major race. An unprecedented six blacks are in close races for either Senator or Governor, the top political posts in the country outside the Oval Office. Never have that many black candidates with sufficient money, party support and appeal across racial lines run for those senior offices. "In terms of viable candidates, this is probably the best year," said David Bositis, who studies African-American politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank. And in an even more surprising twist, three of them are Republicans, although only about 7% of American blacks identify with the party.

That bounty of black candidates is no coincidence. Republicans have long sought to improve their relations with African Americans, and one tactic they're employing is to get the few black Republicans in politics to run for office. Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state who is running for Governor, was first encouraged by officials in the Administration of President George H.W. Bush in 1990 to contest a congressional seat, and while he lost that campaign, he has won a string of races in Ohio since then to make him a huge player in G.O.P. politics in the state. More recently, Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee since 2005, has been aggressively reaching out to African Americans, making dozens of visits to historically black colleges and other venues. Mehlman helped recruit Michael Steele, the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, to run for the Senate, while Republicans in Pennsylvania essentially cleared the field of potential primary opponents for Lynn Swann, the Hall of Fame ex-Pittsburgh Steelers receiver, who is making a bid for Governor there.

On the Democratic side, there are already dozens of African-American mayors and members of Congress. But many of those officeholders entered politics in the two decades after the 1965 Voting Rights Act created a number of congressional districts in which African Americans are the majority. And those members of Congress, and many of the mayors, focused mainly on pursuing greater rights for African Americans and didn't build the kind of support among white voters that is necessary for a statewide race.

Now the next generation of black Democratic pols has arrived, armed with Ivy League degrees, elite jobs at universities and Fortune 500 companies, and political profiles that could make them more electable than their predecessors. And they're determined not to be defined solely by their race. The most prominent of those politicians is Illinois' Barack Obama, who is currently the only black Senator. There are no black Governors. Obama, a Harvard Law School grad who taught at the University of Chicago, has emphasized that his appeal is not limited to the black community. Ford, looking to join Obama in the Senate, has sought to distinguish himself from traditional black pols with his more conservative voting record. Dismissing a question about how his race might affect how he campaigns, he told TIME, "In Iraq the bullets don't pierce different racial groups differently." Another Harvard Law School grad, Deval Patrick, who is running for Governor of Massachusetts, has played up his background as a corporate executive at Texaco and Coca-Cola. "A guy came up to me after a speech and said, 'I expected Jesse Jackson, and I got Colin Powell,'" Patrick said. Kweisi Mfume, who hopes to enter the Senate from Maryland but faces a tough primary opponent, is the exception to those men, touting his civil rights background as the former head of the NAACP.

None of these candidates is a sure bet to win. Ford, a Democrat, is running in a conservative state, while Republicans Steele and Swann are contesting in places that traditionally elect Democrats. Mfume and Blackwell have better-funded opponents. Patrick in Massachusetts may have the best shot, as he is leading in the polls, but to win he has to get past two strong opponents in a Democratic primary and then a moderate Republican in the general election. But if a few of them win, it would make 2006 a watershed year for blacks in politics. There have been only five black Senators in U.S. history. And only one African American, Virginia Democrat Douglas Wilder in 1989, has ever been elected Governor.