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by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

GOP Courting Black Evangelicals

(PNS) -- There was a moment of pure, unbridled joy in the camp of Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele recently. On Oct. 30, a group of black Democrats from a suburban Washington, D.C., suburb crossed party lines and endorsed Steele's candidacy for U.S. Senate. This seemed like a huge breakthrough for Steele, a Republican locked in a tight Senate race with white Democratic candidate Ben Cardin.

But it wasn't the endorsement alone that troubled some Democrats. It was the swipe the black Democrats took at their own party. The group from Prince George's County lambasted the Democratic Party for taking black votes for granted. That's a familiar, longstanding charge. But this time it came with a call from black Democrats to back a black Republican. Maryland has a bigger percentage of black voters than almost any other state, and if enough black voters heeded their call, it could spell mortal danger for the Democrats. It could also set a dangerous precedent by encouraging black Democrats in other states to back black Republicans.

When Steele and Republican gubernatorial candidates Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania and the slew of other black Republicans running for state and national offices announced their candidacies, they instantly became the buzz of the nation. GOP leaders and much of the media hailed them as the new wave of black politicians that would finally break the five-decade-long iron grip the Democrats have on the black vote. Bush personally campaigned for Swann, and Blackwell got good support from conservative evangelicals. Steele appealed to Republican moderates.

A victory by any one of the three would put the GOP in a commanding position to bag these key swing states in the 2008 presidential elections. Even if the black GOP candidates lost, a good showing by them would be a plus for the GOP, if it got a sizeable number of black votes to swing its way.

That tantalizing prospect, however, will likely be a dashed hope. Blackwell and Swann are hopelessly trailing in the polls, and race is not an issue in their contests. Steele has nudged close to his Democratic rival, but only because he's sounding like a better Democrat than the Democrats. He's publicly distanced himself from President Bush, criticizing the Iraq war and Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina relief. He backs a minimum wage increase and talks about fighting poverty. Still, this probably won't be enough to put him over the top.

Black Republicans face a hard political fact of life. Though blacks grouse at and bash the Democrats, they overwhelmingly vote for them. Even when they don't, they're more likely to stay home rather than vote Republican. Their rock-solid loyalty to the Democrats is not simply a case of blind and misguided loyalty. The entire Congressional Black Caucus are Democrats, and so are the leaders of the mainstream civil rights organizations. Despite the shots they take at the Democrats for "political plantationism," these black Democrats and civil rights leaders are still highly respected. Most blacks still look to them to fight the tough battles against racial discrimination and for health care, greater funding for education and jobs, voting rights protections and affirmative action.

Black Democrats still accurately capture the mood of fear and hostility the majority of blacks feel toward the Republicans. Even when black Democratic politicians stumble or are tainted with scandal, that won't guarantee they'll be knocked from their perch. Scandal-plagued Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson is considered the front-runner in his re-election bid for Congress. If he is beaten, it will be by another black Democrat. It took another black Democrat to defeat Georgia Democratic Congressperson Cynthia McKinney.

The biggest obstacle to black Republicans' hopes for breakthrough wins is their own party. The endless racially insulting gaffes and racially loaded campaign ads by Republican officials and politicians, and the refusal by GOP brass to loudly condemn them continually ignite black fury. The fight of House Republicans against the Voting Rights Act renewal; the Iraq war expansion; the slash-and-burn of job and education programs; and Bush's Katrina bungle and his five-year snub of the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus deepened black suspicions that the GOP is chock-full of closeted and unreconstructed bigots.

The tormenting study by a Yale political economist this year, which found that many white Republicans would rather vote for a white Democrat than a black Republican, doesn't help black Republican candidates much, either. Though many white Democrats similarly won't vote for a black Democrat, the top-heavy number of black votes that a black Democrat would get offsets white voters' reluctance. In the Maryland Democratic primary, Cardin barely nudged out former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. The black vote kept the badly under-funded Mfume in play. Few of those black voters are likely to switch their Democratic Party allegiance to Steele.

Bush talked much about making the GOP a true party of diversity. That got him a mild bump up in black votes in his 2004 presidential win. That stirred many black Republicans to hope for the unthinkable -- that they could win big-ticket offices. For now, that appears too optimistic.

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Albion Monitor   November 2, 2006   (

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