Will the GOP play the race card on Rangel and Waters?

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Aug. 3 2010 6:17 PM

The Ghost of Willie Horton

Will the GOP play the race card on Rangel and Waters?

Charlie Rangel with Maxine Waters. Click image to expand.
Maxine Waters with Charlie Rangel

The commercial that keeps Democrats up at night does not exist yet. If or when it does, they expect it to look like this. Fade-in to black-and-white image of Rep. Whiteguy Bluedog, looking sleazy and pale as he messily eats a sandwich.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

NARRATOR: What is your congressman trying to hide?

Images of Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., appear behind the congressman, looking just as sleazy, but much less pale.

NARRATOR: Why hasn't he returned the $1,000 he took from Harlem Democrat Charlie Rangel, who's facing a trial for cheating on his taxes? Why did he oppose investigating Democrat Maxine Waters, who got a tax break for her husband's business and says that American spies invented crack cocaine?

The images of Waters and Rangel fade and are replaced by slow-motion footageof two members of the New Black Panther Party, stalking outside of a polling place in 2008.

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NARRATOR: Why did he support Barack Obama's lawyers when they dropped a case against the racist New Black Panther Party, a hate group that threatened voters in the last election?

The image of the Panthers fade, and the congressman morphs into Barack Obama.

NARRATOR: What is he trying to hide? Is there something about him we should know?

Since last week's double shot of rotten ethics news—the investigations into Rangel and Waters, both of whom refuse so far to settle—Democrats have contemplated two potential nightmares. The first is that Republicans will use the troubles of Rangel and Waters to try to depress the Democrats' African-American base, making them less likely to come to the rescue of endangered incumbents. The second is that Republicans will use the embattled committee chairs the way that they once used Willie Horton, as Halloween masks in TV ads.

"In 2006, the Democrats could have put out ads about Mark Foley, and it wouldn't have made a difference whether they used pictures of him or not," says Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist for multiple presidential campaigns who now teaches at New York University  and warns of Republican race-baiting in the weeks ahead. "In 2010, if Republicans put up photos of Rangel or Waters, they're putting them there to elicit another kind of response. That would be fear among white voters."

The Democratic angst comes, in part, because they know they're facing a whiter, older electorate this year than they faced in 2008. The electorate that put Obama into office and pulled in new, vulnerable Democrats was 74 percent white, and 53 percent were older than 45. In 2006, the last midterm election and a fine year for Democrats overall, the electorate was 79 percent white, and 63 percent were 45 or older.  Will an older, whiter electorate in Nov. 2010 be susceptible to a racially-tinged message from the GOP?

"You'll notice that [conservatives] always refer to him as 'Harlem Democrat' Charlie Rangel," said one Democratic congressional aide. "It's not a coincidence. They want you to know the guy represents Harlem—get it?"

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