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.
Still, some Democrats say the GOP's investment in high-profile black candidates represents a strategy that cannot be dismissed lightly. "It cuts into the Democratic base," said Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman. "It gives choices. And what that does is say to the Democratic Party, 'Put your money where your mouth is.' "The Grooming of Steele
Though all three African American candidates are breaking fresh ground for the Republican Party, it is Steele who has been the most aggressively groomed and recruited. This is due in part to a longtime friendship with former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and to Mehlman's Baltimore roots.
Tall, elegant and disarmingly direct, the 47-year-old Georgetown Law graduate left a struggling consulting business in the late 1990s to become the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. In 2002, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tapped him to be his running mate, and Steele became the first black person elected to statewide office in Maryland.
At the 2004 Republican National Convention, Steele was handed a prime-time speaking role and a seat in Vice President Cheney's box. Last year, when Sarbanes announced that he would retire, a succession of party luminaries, including President Bush, called to urge Steele to join the race.
He and the governor spent hours agonizing over the decision. Steele said he did not want to run an un-winnable race just to make a point.
"I had a very long and frank conversation with the leadership of the Republican Party," Steele said Friday. "I told them: 'This has to be real. This can't be tokenism.' "
High-level support followed quickly. Just weeks into Steele's candidacy, the president and top aides, including Karl Rove and Andrew H. Card Jr., have hosted fundraisers for him. Gillespie, the campaign's national finance chairman, held a $100,000 event at his home. Since October, Steele has raised more than $2.6 million.
Four years ago, post-election analyses showed the Ehrlich-Steele ticket winning 10 to 15 percent of the black vote, which did not represent a gain for the GOP. In this campaign, Steele has a strategy that includes outreach to African American business leaders and frequent appearances at predominantly black churches.
Last week, he visited the Hope Christian Church in Lanham. Steele stood comfortably at the pulpit, recalling the religious teachings he soaked up in the three years he spent as an Augustinian friar, studying for the priesthood.
He seemed eager to enter the debate over same-sex marriage, which has cross appeal among Republicans and blacks. Calling marriage "a covenant between one man and one woman," he told the group of about 100 ministers: "This is the way it's always been and always should be. What part of this don't people understand?"
Steele is generally cautious with his references to the Republican Party, although he says that is because most people know his political affiliation. When he announced his candidacy before a boisterous crowd in Prince George's County, the nation's most affluent majority-black suburb, he did not once mention his GOP affiliation. Instead, he described himself as a "bridge" between the parties.
Leonardo Alcivar, a communications specialist who worked for Steele's campaign and is now working for Swann, said there is a key distinction between the way the two men are running. "We don't have to shy away from being Republican in the way Michael does," he said.
Democrats will not select their nominee until September, but polls have shown Steele trailing both Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. If Cardin becomes the nominee, Steele is likely to seek to exploit any disappointment within the black community over Mfume's defeat.Blackwell's Challenge
Blackwell, 58, is a former mayor of Cincinnati and a former Ohio treasurer. He was the first African American to be elected statewide, in 1994. He said he sees himself as an agent for creating more competition for the black vote. "I thought it was in the interest of the African American community to reconstruct a competitive two-party system," he said.
Last week, he won a nasty primary against Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, casting himself as less tied than his opponent to the tarnished administration of GOP Gov. Bob Taft. His challenge now will be to try to distance himself from the scandals that have driven Taft's poll numbers into the teens, while uniting the party.
Blackwell proudly trumpets his ideology and is staunchly conservative on both economic and social issues. His election would change the character of a state Republican Party long dominated by the more moderate business wing rather than by social conservatives.
Blackwell championed the successful 2004 ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in Ohio, a position that could attract support from both white evangelicals and African Americans. This year, he is promoting a state constitutional amendment that would impose tight spending limitations on state and local governments. Local government officials from both parties are opposed.
Strickland said Blackwell has the potential to cut into the black vote in November. He stressed that he will not take African Americans for granted.
Black Democratic mayors are now pressing Strickland and state Rep. Chris Redfern, the party chairman, for commitments to an urban agenda as the price for their endorsement.
Republicans have made clear gains among Latino voters in the past decade, but their efforts to attract African American votes have met continued resistance. One reason, according to Dianne M. Pinderhughes, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the bond between blacks and the Democratic Party created by the civil rights battles of the 1960s, for which there has been no Hispanic equivalent.
For Latinos, "there wasn't a major event, like the legislation of the 1960s that Lyndon Johnson or the Democratic Party were involved in that brought blacks into Democratic Party in large numbers and led to partisan identification for a whole generation," she said.
That bond has proved difficult for Republicans to break. But Democratic strategists respect the Republicans' willingness to look over the horizon and make the investments that could change old patterns.
"The Republicans have a longer-term view of things than we Democrats sometimes have," said Cornell Belcher, the Democratic National Committee's pollster.
If anything, the hurdles facing Republicans today are higher, given the paltry support for Bush among blacks -- numbers that have worsened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
But these campaigns are not just about victory, said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
In a Democratic stronghold such as Maryland, he said, "if they saw an increase of 5 percent of the black vote, I think, they would figure they had died and gone to heaven."
Mosk reported from Maryland. Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb and research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.