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August 11, 2008

The Kilpatrick factor

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) barely held onto her Congressional seat in a primary against two opponents who made the misconduct of her son, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the central issue in the race.

But she may not be the only Democrat who could face repercussions from Kilpatrick’s misbehavior.

In reporting on the congresswoman’s tough re-election bid, I was struck by the number of Democratic operatives in Detroit who suspected that the mayor’s problems didn’t just put his mother’s re-election in jeopardy, but threatened to tarnish the Democratic brand throughout Michigan.

And that includes Barack Obama’s campaign in the Wolverine State.

One consultant, who worked for one of Kilpatrick’s primary rivals, put it bluntly.

“This goes beyond their behavior in Detroit. The behavior pattern of the Kilpatricks threatens to undermine Obama’s candidacy in Michigan,” Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle told me. “Their behavior feeds into how white mainstream voters think of black politicians.”

Indeed, Kilpatrick performed dismally in the predominantly white, affluent Grosse Point slice of the Detroit district, winning only 11 percent of the vote there.

As one of Kilpatrick’s former pollsters, Steve Mitchell, writes in a Real Clear Politics op-ed today:

Kilpatrick's tremendous unpopularity has fueled latent and sometime blatant racism among Michigan voters, the last thing Obama needs in a key state less than three months before the election.

During the primaries, Obama dismissed some white voters by saying they "cling to their guns or religion." Democrats must now worry that white voters in Michigan may well cling to their enormous antipathy towards Kwame Kilpatrick and take it out on Barack Obama.

Another potential beneficiary of the Kilpatrick scandal is long-time Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) running for re-election across the border in the Detroit suburb of Oakland County. Knollenberg is facing a serious challenge from Democrat Gary Peters in a race that has been targeted by national Democrats.

Democrats said that it would be near-impossible to credibly tie Peters (a former state lottery commissioner) to Kilpatrick, but with the scandal making daily, front-page news in Detroit, I wouldn’t be surprised if Knollenberg’s campaign tries to make the connection as the campaign heats up.