File it under one of those “Duh” statements.
In remarks at DePaul University this week, Michael Steele, the Republican leader, declared that his party hadn’t “done a very good job” courting black votes. Republicans, their leader charged, had “mistreated” their relationship to blacks over four decades with a “‘southern strategy’ that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote.”
“Why the hell is Steele, chairman of the RNC (!!), talking about a southern strategy from decades past when today’s GOP can win 50 seats in the House,” one angry GOP operative demanded by email.
Steele’s remarks, and this fresh round of controversy entangling the party, shadow a less reported development. Thirty-two black Republicans, a record-high number, are now running for the U.S. House of Representatives. The South and West, the nation’s most diverse regions, field the majority of these candidates: 13 (40 percent) are running in the South and six (19 percent) in the West.
Politically speaking, the group is running in a hodgepodge of districts: Twenty (63 percent) are running in districts that lean slightly or strongly Democratic, while 11 (34 percent) are running in districts that lean slightly or strongly Republican. What’s more, the 32 black candidates are running in districts that vary in racial composition: 17 are in majority-white districts, while 15 are majority-minority districts.
“People who’ve lost factory jobs or lost their home, people who approach me after Tea Party events, have asked me to run,” says Angela McGlowan, a small-business owner and former Fox TV political analyst, running to unseat a Blue Dog Democrat in Mississippi’s first district. “They say, ‘Angela, you’ve made it big. Please go back to Washington and help us.’ When people who have despair ask you for help, you don’t turn them down.”
There is no specific or organized effort to recruit black candidates to run for Congress, says Paul Lindsay, spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the official party organization working to elect Republicans.
“Our recruitment process in general is colorblind,” says Lindsay. “You know, that being said, we have been fortunate to have a successful year that includes a number of African-American candidates running.”
“Many black Americans are tired of the political system taking them for granted,” says Timothy Johnson, chairperson of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a black-run organization that promotes the political involvement and election of blacks nationwide. “These candidates represent a small group of individuals who have stepped out on faith and decided to stop yelling at the TV and get involved.”
This historic showing of black candidates promises more hope than probability. Of the 32 candidates, only six stand even a reasonable chance of winning their respective party primary and general election, according to careful calculations, aggregating the analysis of Congressional Quarterly, the Cook Political Report and this author.
These six viable black candidates include David Castillo (WA-3), Bill Hardiman (MI-3), Lou Huddleston (NC-8), Les Phillip (AL-5), Alan West (FL-22) and McGlowan.
Of the GOP’s top six black prospects, five are military veterans; five are self-described conservative Christians; four have advanced degrees; and one is a light-skinned Caribbean immigrant, a la Colin Powell.
Only one of the 32 black candidates is receiving active financial and political support from the national party: Allen West, who faces stiff opposition from well-funded Democratic incumbent Ron Klein. (That contested Florida congressional district swoops up from Broward to the northern tip of Palm Beach County, comprising the epicenter of the heated 2000 presidential recount.) West is the only black candidate in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program, an “elite” group of the party’s top-priority candidates. The “merit-based” program provides funds and strategic political support to Republicans challenging Democratic incumbents or running for open seats. Young Guns must meet fundraising, volunteer-recruitment, Internet outreach and other campaign benchmarks to earn their status.
West declined to be interviewed through his spokesperson, Valentina Weis, also a founder of the South Florida Tea Party.
Given the anti-establishment, anti-Washington fervor haunting this election cycle, many Republican candidates publicly keep the national party at arm’s length, anyway. (Right Senator Hutchinson?) But, no matter. Discrete political and financial support from the NRCC and the Republican establishment is craved by most GOP congressional hopefuls, including the competitive black ones. McGlowan, the Mississippi candidate, initiated a meeting with the NRCC, seeking party support — to no avail. “Mississippi’s good ol’ boys rallied around an establishment candidate,” she says, at Trent Lott’s encouragement: Alan Nunnelee.
Like their white counterparts, the black GOP candidates are seeking national party support mixed with Tea Party street cred. This tightrope walk offers its own challenges — and comedy. When a black reporter recently ventured into a big Tea Party rally, a “greeter” confused the reporter for a stadium worker, stopping him stone-cold at the gate: “Are you working tonight?”
Why blame the Tea Party greeter? His impromptu experiment in racial profiling has grounding in fact: A recent CBS/New York Times poll reveals that only 1 percent of Tea Party supporters are black. It’s a chicken-egg conundrum, pinpointing an exact sequence of events: the GOP’s “southern strategy,” its extremely vanilla demographics, and its chronic racial kerfuffles. A bungled Hurricane Katrina response inspired Barbara Bush, inspecting the disaster survivors, to chime: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
And never mind Trent Lott’s Dixiecrat ode to Strom Thurmond. If only America elected the segregationist in 1948, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.” Or the Republican-supported Tennessee campaign ad starring a white woman cooing at a black Democrat: “Call me, Harold.” Or Glenn Beck’s insistence that Obama “hates” white people. Or, “You lie!” Or, Confederate History Month.
And aggravating the GOP’s racial discomfort is the person once poised to soothe it: Michael Steele.
In a recent “Good Morning America” TV interview, Steele complained he is being held to a higher standard than his white predecessors because of his skin color.
Former GOP congressman and TV pundit Joe Scarborough scoffed: “It’s just the opposite. When I talk to senior Republicans in Washington and I ask, ‘Why is Michael Steele still in the job?’ they laugh and say, ‘What, you think we’re going to fire an African American in the age of Obama? Are you an idiot?'”
A former seminarian, pro-life Catholic, and self-described “Lincoln Republican,” Steele was installed by an overwhelmingly white party leadership in early 2009 to “broaden” the GOP base — ideologically, not racially.
“When people speak of broadening the party’s geographic diversity, they are speaking in code. They mean the party needs to welcome more moderates; be more forgiving of departures from orthodoxy; and be less antagonistic to pro-choicers and gays,” according to political observer Marc Ambinder. Thus Steele’s chairmanship “marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party.”
This is not the GOP’s first attempt to cleanse its racial image.
In 2005, the GOP wanted to launch a “big-tent campaign” to woo black voters, “If You Give Us a Chance, We’ll Give You a Choice.” That year, Ken Mehlman, GOP chairman at the time, apologized to blacks at an NAACP national convention for the party’s history of exploiting racial tension to court white voters — aka the “southern strategy.”
In reality, Republican efforts to court minority voters also serve to smooth the party’s rough, conservative edges. The GOP doesn’t woo minorities just for their own sake, but also to reel in the larger, more desired prize: the national mass of moderate white voters. It’s like flattering the pizza-face girl leaning on the bar to get to her knockout friend.
The GOP’s overwhelmingly white coterie of party bosses elected Steele, immediately after Obama’s inauguration, more for the sake of white moderates than for racial minorities. As one wag puts it, Steele provides the Republican Party “default race card insurance,” political cover for when Republicans attack the president and need to deflect charges of racism.
When Republicans elect a black leader or extravagantly spotlight minorities at their public events, those gestures partly illustrate the party’s racial progress. But they also double as preemptive strikes against inevitable and deserved charges of racial prejudice. These gestures are delivered like Bat Signals to moderate whites to telegraph the party’s “tolerance.”
McGlowan, the Mississippi challenger and former TV pundit, says she is better poised than her white male competitors to “get the crossover vote from females, Latinos and blacks.” Yet McGlowan also bristles at labels, insisting she is not running as a female or black candidate.
“Oh, heck no,” she exclaims. “Harmony knows no color. Taxes know no color. Unemployment knows no color.” During one forum in the South, McGlowan recalls, opponents proposed that she, the sole woman, speak first. She declined. “I don’t want a special type of handout.”
Republicans, and conservatives generally, face a sticky paradox. On the one hand, conservative dogma champions a “colorblind” mantra. Glenn Beck encourages his supporters to boycott the race question on the Census. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts says America must end the “sordid business” of “divvying” ourselves by race. On the other hand, a rapidly diversifying electorate requires the GOP to acknowledge race and to racially diversify — or go the way of the dodo bird.
Put bluntly, how does the GOP square its colorblind daydreams with its unfolding demographic nightmare? How does a party that professes to “transcend race” woo minority voters while clutching its white base?
Racial politics is tricky terrain, anyway, since voters don’t vote primarily according to skin color — the candidates’ or their own. The vast majority of Americans cast ballots by weighing the issues close to home: the economy, health care, education, social values, immigration and the like. Race is not the be-all end-all of most Americans’ voting choices. That noted, a minority voter’s race is extremely predictive of party identification — as much and more so than any other personal trait (gender, income, education level, etc.). Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans consistently rate Democrats better than Republicans on their handling of such basic issues.
Race is not the main issue in the 2010 election cycle. But it’s not irrelevant either.
Racial anxiety and race baiting cloud this campaign, too. The country’s Obama-era racial politics rarely mentions race in debate, though it tucks race just under the surface of “nonracial” issues: taxes, health care reform, public spending, and, pointedly, immigration. One black candidate for Congress even tried to color Obama’s cap-and-trade proposals black.
“Environmentalism is a new platform to welcome poor blacks onto the government plantation,” charges Star Parker, a black, “small-government” conservative candidate in California’s 37th district.
Decades after Reconstruction, the novelty and puzzlement over black Republicans are hardly new. White Republicans have also wondered why the party of Lincoln has historically failed to attract blacks. Departing the 1976 Republican convention aboard a commercial flight, country singer Pat Boone asked Earl Butz, Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture, why more blacks didn’t join the GOP. “The only thing the coloreds are looking for in life,” the Secretary explained, “are a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.”
Decades later, while swaths of America adulate black sports stars, TV talk queens and even the president, the question lingers whether and how badly the GOP wants to racially diversify, while maintaining its conservative base.
Likewise, the historic batch of 32 congressional candidates navigates complicated election terrain — no less so by Obama, Steele, those loaded Tea Parties, and their very own party baggage.
Rich Benjamin is the author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.