Bush's Black Voter Court Shakes Democrats

Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman told the recent NAACP convention that he'd pull out all stops to woo black voters to the GOP tent. A few hundred miles away his boss was busy touting his program for jobs, minority business, and homeownership at the Indianapolis Black Expo. Bush and Mehlman got a listen at both places, and they should have. Blacks have gotten precious little in return for their blind loyalty to the Democratic Party. The black poor are more numerous. They live in crime- and violence-plagued neighborhoods. Their children attend miserably failing public schools. Public services in their communities are abominable.

Increased black GOP voter support will give blacks greater leverage in the Republican Party to promote their interests. That in turn will force the Democrats to fight harder for those interests. The GOP has reshaped the black agenda to challenge the agenda of black Democrats and mainstream civil rights groups.

But Bush and Mehlman's black voter onslaught has nothing to do with political altruism. The GOP is playing for national and state dominance for years to come and even the most marginal bump up in the black vote for the party in key battleground states would assure that dominance.

There are slight rumblings of a shift. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C. based black political research institute, found that between 2000 and 2004 the percent of blacks that registered Democrat dropped 11 percent. One in three young (under age 35) blacks said they were independents. The percentage of blacks registered as Republican tripled. The not-insignificant Republican increase and the Democratic slide among blacks have had major political consequences.

In Florida, a record black vote turnout in Democratic precincts in 2000 nearly tipped the election to Al Gore. In 2004 it was exactly the reverse. A tepid black Democratic turnout, combined with the 13 percent of the black votes Bush received, double what he got in 2000, helped him win Florida outright and avoid a repeat of the election debacle of 2000.

Republican gains among blacks were even more dramatic in Ohio, where Bush garnered nearly 20 percent of the black vote. To put that in perspective, if Bush in 2004 had only gotten the same proportion of the Ohio black vote as he did in 2000, his margin of victory over Democratic presidential contender John Kerry would have narrowed from 118,000 votes to 25,000 votes. Given the large number of provisional ballots filed in Ohio, the Democrats almost certainly would have challenged the election certification. It would have been Florida 2000 all over again.

GOP gains among black voters are no accident. In August 2000, embattled GOP strategist Karl Rove told Washington Post national political writer Tom Edsall that the Republicans must reject "the use of such issues as affirmative action, and 'welfare queens' that past GOP candidates had employed in a calculated bid to polarize the electorate and put together a predominantly white majority." Mehlman repeated a variation on the line at the NAACP convention when he tendered his and the GOP's mea culpa for snubbing blacks in past years.

Bush and Mehlman aim to bury the sorry episode in Republican history when it blatantly pandered to racists, states' righters and ultra-conservative kooks and loonies, and hopelessly alienated black voters. Their strategy is to resurrect the part of its past in which Republicans championed black rights. The difference this time is that Republicans have radically redefined the fight for black rights. It's not for affirmative action, and more entitlement and welfare programs. It's pro-business, and homeownership, pro-Social Security privatization, and pro-traditional family values. That appeals to young, upwardly mobile blacks.

The rare times that Republicans have made any real effort to attract blacks, put money into a black Republican candidate's campaign and delivered on their promise to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business, and education programs, they've dented the Democrat's lock on the black vote and even managed to win a few key state offices, most notably in Maryland and Ohio. In 2006, a slew of high-profile blacks will bid for Senate seats and governorships in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two perennially crucial battleground states.

The spectacular emergence of black evangelicals as a potent political force also has been a boon to the GOP, and a nightmare for Democrats. If Republicans play their anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion cards right, and Bush delivers on his African AIDS funding initiative, they'll get even more black evangelical votes in the 2006 elections.

The fear and loathing many blacks still have of Bush's policies guarantee the Democrats a winning hand in the hard fought game for black voters, for now. But Republicans think they can do something that was unthinkable a scant four years, and that's break the Democrats' stranglehold on the black vote. Bush and Mehlman may be on to something.

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