News & Politics

Dashed Hopes for Black GOPers

The hard truth is that many white Republicans would rather vote for a white Democrat than a black Republican.
There was a moment of pure unbridled joy in the camp of Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele. A group of black Democrats from the suburban Washington D.C. suburb of Prince George’s County had just endorsed him. This seemed like a huge breakthrough for Steele. He is locked in a tight race for the Senate with white Democrat, Ben Cardin.

But it wasn’t the endorsement alone that troubled some Democrats. It was the swipe the group took at the Democrats. The group lambasted them for taking black votes for granted. Though that ancient charge has been repeatedly tossed in the face of the Democrats, the difference this time is that it came with the 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. They were hailed by GOP leaders and much of the media 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, and Steele appealed to Republican moderates.

A victory or even a good showing by the three would be a win-win for the GOP. A victory would put the GOP in a commanding position in the 2008 presidential elections to bag these key swing states. Even if they lost, a good showing by the black Republicans, would be a plus for the GOP, if they got a
sizeable number of black votes to swing their way.

That tantalizing prospect, however, will likely be a dashed hope. Blackwell and Swann are hopelessly trailing in the polls, and their races are not in play. Steele has nudged close to his Democratic rival, but only because he’s sounding like a better Democrat than the Democrats. He’s built his politically catchy bridge of steel pitch by publicly distancing himself from Bush, that means criticizing the Iraq war, and his handling of Hurricane Katrina relief. He backs a minimum wage increase, and talks about fighting poverty. But this probably won’t be enough to put him over the top either.

Black Republicans crash against a hard political fact of life. Though blacks grouse at and bash the Democrats they overwhelmingly vote for them, and 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,” the black Democrats and civil rights leaders are still highly respected. Most blacks still look to them to fight the tough battles for health care, greater funding for education and, jobs, voting rights protections, affirmative action, and against racial discrimination.

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 reelection 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 Republican’s hopes for breakthrough wins is their own party. The endless foot in the mouth, racial insulting gaffes, racially loaded campaign ads, by Republican officials and politicians and the refusal by GOP brass to loudly condemn them, or worse, defend them, continually
ignites black fury. The fight of House Republicans against the Voting Rights Act renewal, 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 closet and unreconstructed bigots.

The tormenting public finding that many white Republicans would rather vote for a white Democrat than a black Republican doesn’t help much either. Though many white Democrats won’t vote for a black Democrat, the top-heavy number of black votes that a black Democrat would get offsets white vote 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, and that’s that they could win big-ticket offices. For now, that looks like a dashed hope.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and the GOP's court of black voters.
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