The Year of the Black Republican?

Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is running for governor. He sees himself as an agent for increasing competition for the black vote.
Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is running for governor. He sees himself as an agent for increasing competition for the black vote. (By Kiichiro Sato -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When J. Kenneth Blackwell took the stage here on May 2 to claim the Republican nomination for governor, he became something more than his party's standard-bearer in a bellwether state.

The Ohio secretary of state -- a crusading conservative with an appetite for political combat -- also assumed a leading role in his party's latest effort to break the Democrats' decades-long grip on the black vote.

Blackwell, who will face Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland in November, is now the third prominent African American on a statewide Republican ballot this fall. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, whose candidacy has benefited from his friendship with two Republican National Committee chairmen, is the party's nominee to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. In Pennsylvania, former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann is challenging Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal first brought African Americans into the Democratic coalition in the 1930s, and Lyndon B. Johnson's 1960s support for civil rights legislation cemented their allegiance. In the subsequent four decades, Republicans have seen their presidential candidates win a dwindling share of the black vote. It hit bottom in 2000, when George W. Bush managed to garner just 8 percent of the votes of African Americans.

It is that formidable history that Blackwell, Steele and Swann are trying to overcome.

The three are running on similar platforms of lower taxes, smaller government, and opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, but they come to their contests with different credentials. Blackwell has a long résumé in elective office and conservative causes. Steele is a former state party chairman but has never been elected on his own. Swann is a true political novice, albeit one with the star quality of a Hall of Fame wide receiver.

All three begin as underdogs. Independent polls have shown Steele starting the campaign as much as 15 points behind the Democratic front-runner. Blackwell trailed by 10 percentage points in a pre-primary Mason-Dixon poll for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Swann trails Rendell in the polls and has lost ground since entering the race earlier this year.

All three black candidates face significant obstacles. In heavily Democratic Maryland, Steele must win a big share of the black vote in a state where African Americans account for 28 percent of the population, almost three times the percentages in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Swann must overcome rookie mistakes that have plagued his campaign in the early months. Blackwell is running into head winds created by GOP scandals in Ohio and by lingering resentment in the African American community over voting problems in the 2004 election, which he oversaw as secretary of state.

Together, they embody a new chapter in the Republican Party's often-failed efforts to appeal to African Americans, a strategy shaped by RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, who last year apologized for the GOP's Nixon-era "Southern strategy" of exploiting white resentment over integration.

"We've gone from a model of outreach to a model of inclusion," Mehlman said. "Outreach is a top-down approach. Inclusion says, 'Let's find some really good people and encourage them to run for office.' "

Republicans such as Mehlman say it will take more than one political cycle to change the habits of African American voters, and some Democrats say it will take more than a few attractive black Republican candidates to overcome GOP positions -- on affirmative action and other issues -- that many blacks view as anathema to their interests.

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