By JONATHAN TILOVE
October 19, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
LARGO, Md. _ With Election Day in sight, the vaunted “year of the black Republican” is riding on Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele’s uphill campaign for the U.S. Senate and his ability to make inroads in the suburban, majority-black county he calls home.
Steele represents the Republican Party’s best chance this year, and in many years, to break through with black voters. Sending Steele to the Senate, where he would join Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, would be a breakthrough victory for Republicans trying to crack the Democratic lock on the black vote nationally.
But first Steele must overcome huge antipathy to President Bush in one of America‘s bluest and blackest states, and rally African-American voters in Prince George‘s County in hopes that race trumps party for some of the most educated and affluent black voters in the nation.
Which brings Steele to a favorite, upscale, black-owned tea cafe next to the Magic Johnson Theaters here in the heart of Prince George’s, where he has come to reap the fervent praise of the flamboyant boxing promoter Don King, and lament the defeat of former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary, thwarting what could have been a historic black-vs.-black Senate race.
“My friend Kweisi, the fact that he is not in this race says a lot. They say I was a hand-picked candidate; well, so was my opponent.” said Steele, blaming white power brokers in Maryland for Mfume’s defeat in the September primary at the hands of Benjamin Cardin, a liberal nine-term congressman from Baltimore.
By contrast, Steele said, “My party embraced me.”
For months, in story after story, 2006 was promoted as potentially “the year of the black Republican.” But Republican gubernatorial candidates J. Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania are running well behind their Democratic rivals. Only Steele, who was trailing Cardin by 11 points in the last Baltimore Sun poll, released in late September, seemed within striking distance of staging an upset.
If the personable Steele also falters, 2006 may be written off as another lost gambit by Republicans. It will especially be the case if Election Day produces another one or two national black Democratic stars in Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is running a tight race for senator from Tennessee, or Deval Patrick, the Democratic nominee for governor in Massachusetts.
But win or lose, the Steele campaign here will offer telling clues about future prospects for Republicans among the growing ranks of the black middle class.
As the political analyst Michael Barone wrote recently on his blog for U.S. News & World Report, “A Democratic-Republican struggle for the votes of middle-class blacks will be something new in American politics … . It’s not clear whether Steele has the potential to make serious inroads in Prince George‘s. But it’s probably the only way he can win.”
Blacks represent about a quarter of the electorate in Maryland, which has the largest percentage black population of any state outside the Deep South. With a population of 850,000 and two-thirds black, Prince George‘s County is counted the most affluent black-majority county in America, but its inner ring, between the Beltway and Washington, D.C., suffers many of the same stresses associated with the inner city.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1 in Prince George‘s. Bush won 17 percent of the vote here in 2004.
Despite the fact that Steele is homegrown, served as both the county and state GOP chair, and is the first black elected statewide in Maryland history, his electoral appeal in Prince George’s County remains unproven. With Steele as his running mate, Gov. Robert Ehrlich won 23 percent of the vote in Prince George‘s in 2002, a worse showing than the 1998 GOP ticket headed by the very conservative Ellen Sauerbrey.
The Steele campaign is working hard to establish the candidate’s cultural bona fides. While Cardin brought in Barack Obama to campaign, and is running radio ads featuring Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, Steele welcomed Russell Simmons, the hip-hop entrepreneur, who also cut radio ads, and Don King, who arrived in Largo waving two small American flags and wearing the usual wild gleam in his eyes.
“They call Michael Steele a unique threat,” said King. “That’s a code word _ `Ya’ll can do what you want but don’t let that brother get into the Senate.”’
Mike Tyson, who was formerly married to Steele’s sister, has praised him to the hilt.
In the Baltimore Sun poll, Steele was winning about a quarter of the black vote statewide, and about 35 percent of the black vote in Prince George’s, according to Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. in Bethesda, Md., the independent firm that conducted the survey. “He’s showing the capacity to penetrate Prince George‘s African-American community that people would not have anticipated a year ago,” said Haller.
But it may not be enough. David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said Steele needs to score better than that with black voters to offset his real problem _ a fall-off in white support, and this year’s strong Democratic headwinds.
Bush is as unpopular with African-Americans as any president in history. University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson said his surveys have found that better-educated blacks are the most sensitive on race.
Steele has gone to great lengths to keep his distance from Bush. His television ads suggest a candidate running as an independent. He is selling a warm and trustworthy personality, not issues.
His most potent appeal to black voters may be a sense of grievance with Democrats for taking them for granted.
Eugene Grant, the black Democratic mayor of the Prince George‘s city of Seat Pleasant, said he endorsed Steele in reaction to “the disrespect of the Democratic Party toward African-Americans.”
But James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said party identification is among the most durable of identities. Steele’s campaign will test whether black voters will “allow their racial affinity to override their party,” Gimpel said.
Grainger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, with 12,000 parishioners one of the county’s largest, backs Cardin and said most blacks would find the Democrat more to their liking on the issues. But, he said, “In the past most African-Americans have simply dismissed Republican candidates. This year, because of Steele’s personality, there is an interest in at least looking at him. The Republican Party has a tremendous opportunity if they only take advantage of it.”
But in chicken-or-egg fashion, it may take a victory by a compelling figure like Steele to truly break open the competition for black votes.