Affirmative Action Emerges As Wedge Issue in Election

Walter Alarkon, The Hill, March 11, 2008

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The ballot initiative wedge issue of 2008 may be affirmative action, which could help Republicans.

A conservative group hopes to pass initiatives amending state constitutions in five states—Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma—that would ban race and gender preferences in state government hiring and public education. Liberal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are trying to keep them off the ballot.

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The anti-affirmative action initiatives could play a role in the presidential race, with Colorado and Missouri looking like swing states and with Democrats nominating either a woman, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), or an African-American, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Kimball said.

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But Democrats may find themselves on the defensive over this year’s initiatives, since similar anti-affirmative action efforts have been successful before. Voters passed them in California (1996), Washington state (1998) and Michigan (2006).

The same group supporting those measures, the American Civil Rights Institute, and its chairman, Ward Connerly, a California Republican, are also behind this year’s measures.

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Since more than four-fifths of Missouri is white and much of it is suburban, Kimball expects Missouri voters to pass the initiative should it appear on the ballot. (Supporters of the group have already turned in the necessary signatures in Colorado and Oklahoma.)

While national Democrats may only have to address the issue while visiting states where affirmative action is on the ballot, Democrats in competitive congressional races might need to address it throughout their campaigns, Kimball said.

In Missouri, Rep. Sam Graves (R) is running for a fifth term against former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D). Democrats also hope to take the seat of Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R), who is retiring. In Colorado, Democrats have their sights set on Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s (R) seat and the open Senate seat of Wayne Allard (R), who is also retiring. In Arizona, Democratic Reps. Gabrielle Giffords and Harry Mitchell are hoping for a second term after winning close races in 2006. Democrats are targeting the seat of Rep. Rick Renzi, another Republican leaving Congress, as well as House Republican John Shadegg.

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But if the initiatives make it to the ballots, groups on both the right and left will gear up to turn out their voters. And affirmative action has already emerged as an issue in the Democratic presidential contest. On Tuesday, Clinton backer Geraldine Ferraro told a California paper that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.”

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