Only about 3 to 5 percent of voters are truly undecided between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Focus groups run by Republicans have found that some of the most effective ads appealing to those voters feature Democrats and independents speaking candidly about how they voted for Obama in 2008 but are now disappointed.
That’s one of the reasons that Republicans have decided to showcase former Democratic congressman Artur Davis of Alabama as a “headline” speaker at their convention. Davis, a moderate black Democrat who voted against Obamacare in 2010 and was crushed later that year in a Democratic primary for governor, has since left the Democratic party and is backing Mitt Romney. He was an early Obama supporter — the first Democratic congressman outside Illinois to endorse the candidate in 2007. He seconded Obama’s nomination for president at the 2008 Denver convention.
“The Obama I endorsed was the constitutional-law professor who said he supported the rule of law,” Davis explained to me. “Instead, we got someone who always went to the left whenever he reached a fork in the road.” Now Davis spends a great deal of time describing his conversion to Republican audiences. Even Jamelle Bouie, a writer for the left-wing American Prospect who doesn’t find Davis’s conversion story all that compelling, acknowledges its power. “Davis, like Joe Lieberman before him (and Zell Miller before that), can tell a credible story of ideological alienation,” Bouie wrote in the Washington Post. “He thought the Democratic Party was a big tent, but now — under Barack Obama — it is a haven for intolerant leftism.”
Davis himself puts it very simply. He wanted to get beyond race and run as a moderate who would unite people of all kinds behind a reform agenda. “Democrats know that only a moderate can win for their party now in Alabama — the legislature even went GOP in 2010 — but I was a threat to their interest groups. The teachers’ union knew I backed charter schools and they preferred to have a Republican elected rather than a Democrat who might move that party to the center.”
He says he is surprised at the reaction he’s gotten from conservative audiences. “You have a converted sinner who’s standing in front of you right now, and I thank you for letting me stand here,” he told a tea-party group in Falls Church, Va., this summer. “I used to go to the Baptist church in Birmingham, and Baptists are good folks. But they won’t let nobody preach on week one, or month one, like y’all will.”
A major reason Republicans have embraced Davis with such enthusiasm is the manner in which he abandoned liberalism. He wrote an op-ed piece for his hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, in October 2011, endorsing a voter-ID law being debated in the Alabama legislature.
Requiring a photo ID in order to vote may be supported by a large majority of Americans — 74 percent in the latest Washington Post poll (including 65 percent of African Americans) — but it has been portrayed by liberal elites as a discriminatory tool designed to suppress black turnout.
One of those voices was Bill Clinton, who in July 2011 excoriated the nationwide movement to pass voter-ID laws as the return of Jim Crow. “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax, and all the other Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”
Davis took his party’s former president on. He wrote: “I was disappointed to see Bill Clinton, a very good president and an even greater ex-president, compare voter ID to Jim Crow, and it is chilling to see the intimidation tactics brought to bear on African-American, Democratic legislators in Rhode Island who had the nerve to support a voter ID law in that very liberal state.”
The former congressman had real credibility in blowing the whistle on this preposterous rhetoric. The two-thirds black district Davis had represented from 2003 to 2011 included Selma, home of the National Voting Rights Museum, and other landmarks of the 1960s struggle for racial equality and voting rights. He had been an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and his career had begun with an internship at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an iconic civil-rights group.
So it was startling to read Davis’s mea culpa:
I’ve changed my mind on voter ID laws — I think Alabama did the right thing in passing one — and I wish I had gotten it right when I was in political office. When I was a congressman, I took the path of least resistance on this subject for an African American politician. Without any evidence to back it up, I lapsed into the rhetoric of various partisans and activists who contend that requiring photo identification to vote is a suppression tactic aimed at thwarting black voter participation.
Davis recognized that the “most aggressive” voter suppression in the African-American community “is the wholesale manufacture of ballots, at the polls and absentee, in parts of the Black Belt.” A predominantly black region in Alabama known for its dark, rich soil, the Black Belt comprises some of the poorest counties in the state — and some of the most prone to voter fraud.
“Voting the names of the dead, and the nonexistent, and the too-mentally-impaired to function, cancels out the votes of citizens who are exercising their rights — that’s suppression by any light,” continued Davis in his op-ed. “If you doubt it exists, I don’t; I’ve heard the peddlers of these ballots brag about it, I’ve been asked to provide the funds for it, and I am confident it has changed a few close local election results.”
The reaction to Davis’s column intrigued him. Some people were angry. “I saw it and was frustrated by it,” Representative Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Roll Call last fall. “I don’t know what that’s all about. There are some people who believe he’s getting ready to switch parties. I have no idea. Needless to say, he doesn’t confide in the CBC.” Davis said he was disappointed that some critics claimed he was speaking out over bitterness that he had lost the Democratic primary for governor. “I gave it my best shot, but they should be concerned that in defeating a moderate like me they handed Republicans every single statewide elected office,” he told me. “But rather than look in the mirror, they prefer to cast stones.”
They are still casting them. Last Thursday, the Democratic National Committee posted a YouTube video showing Artur Davis seconding Obama back at the 2008 convention. The video ends as follows: “The Artur Davis speech at the GOP convention isn’t about Barack Obama. It’s about Artur Davis.”
Davis isn’t concerned. “My old Democratic friends are reminding me of an old rule: In politics, if you fear someone is getting through and people are listening, attack them as fast as you can,” he says.
Davis’s future as a Republican is unclear. He has given thought to running for Congress in northern Virginia, his new home. He also has said he might be interested in a post in a Romney administration. As a former prosecutor and Harvard Law School graduate, he would be qualified for many positions. One possible job might be head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. Putting Davis in charge of the federal office that monitors voter-ID laws passed by states and enforces civil-rights laws would be a clear signal that the hyper-politicized Eric Holder era was over at Justice.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO and a co-author of the newly released Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter Books).