Courting black voters

November 10, 2006

Among those washed away by the Democratic tide on Tuesday were some African-American Republicans who were put forward by national party bigwigs as the new, changing face of the GOP. The most prominent - Michael S. Steele, who ran for the U.S. Senate from Maryland, and J. Kenneth Blackwell and Lynn Swann, gubernatorial candidates from Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively - offer lessons in defeat to which Republicans should pay careful attention.

There's nothing wrong with trying to remind black voters, one of the Democrats' most loyal groups, that they should not be taken for granted. But they should be given meaningful alternatives. Black voters did not forget that Mr. Blackwell, as secretary of state, helped make Ohio the poster child of voting difficulties in 2004 - including long waiting lines and other problems in black precincts - that Florida was in 2000. And former Pittsburgh Steelers star Swann did not offer much of a platform to justify throwing over an accomplished incumbent Democrat, Edward G. Rendell.

Mr. Steele, the first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland as lieutenant governor in 2002, was heavily recruited by prominent, national Republicans when Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced that he would retire. Despite a thin r?sum?, Mr. Steele gained some traction against his opponent, 10-term Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, in part by using unusual political ads that showed off his affable personality but deliberately obscured his views on issues.

The former Maryland Republican Party chairman tried to portray himself as an agent of change who would not be blinded by party loyalty. But some of Mr. Steele's efforts to portray himself as independent, including signs that read "Steele Democrat" and last-minute fliers distributed by out-of-state volunteers that also falsely identified him as a Democrat, ultimately backfired.

Mr. Steele captured about 25 percent of the African-American vote, far short of the 35 percent to 40 percent he was aiming for. In the end, strong opposition to President Bush and the war in Iraq made the vast majority of black voters in Maryland go with the Democrats - just like other dissatisfied voters across the country.

The GOP is right to try to increase diversity within the party, but as with any other potential constituency, it has to offer black voters candidates who connect to their interests and beliefs, not just their race.

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