Major Black Candidates at Record High ; Six African-Americans Are Making Serious Bids for Senator or Governor in 2006

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From Maryland to Tennessee to Ohio, the 2006 elections already hold a place in the history books: More black candidates from both major parties are mounting serious campaigns for upper-tier office - senator or governor - than ever before.

Even more noteworthy, three of the six men are Republican, a party that has struggled to boost its black affiliation above 10 percent. In Maryland, after the Sept. 12 primary, the major-party choice for Senate could come down to two African-Americans.

Whether this year's numbers represent a trend is too early to say. Let's get through a few more election cycles first, political analysts say. But these numbers are not just a coincidence. As with the long-fought rise of women in elective office, African-Americans have toiled for decades to boost their numbers at the lower political levels, and are building the resumes usually required for candidates to upper-level office.

"It's a signal moment in American politics," says Lester Spence, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Historically, blacks have faced a steep climb running for statewide office. Only one African-American - L. Douglas Wilder (D) of Virginia - has ever won the governorship. In the Senate, only five blacks have served, including two in the 1870s. If Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) of Tennessee wins his race, he will be the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.

But that's a big "if." The Republicans nominated a moderate, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, and so it will be a tougher race for the centrist Mr. Ford than if one of the more right-wing Republicans in the primary had won. And even though the Ford family is a brand name in Tennessee politics - Harold Jr.'s father preceded him in representing the Ninth District for 22 years - the legal problems of other family members could hurt him.

Polls show a tight race, but "Harold's not going to win without a strong Demo- cratic wave," says David Bositis, an expert on African- American politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

Of course, the 2006 midterms are showing the telltale signs of a pro-Democratic "wave" election, with the Republican-controlled White House and Congress suffering from high negatives. That could help sink the black Republicans running for statewide office. In Pennsylvania, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee, retired Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, already faced the near-impossible task of unseating the incumbent Democrat, Ed Rendell.

But in Ohio and Maryland, a more favorable climate toward Republicans could have been a boon to Ken Blackwell, nominee for governor in the Buckeye State, and Lt. …