Candidate Makes GOP Appeal to African-Americans

Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, is an African-American Republican running for the U.S. Senate. Steele is trying to persuade other African-Americans to join him in becoming Republicans.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Elsewhere in politics, in Maryland, Democrats are worried about the votes that they normally do get, those of African-Americans. Specifically, the Dems are concerned about a seat in the Senate that they have held for decades in Maryland. But the likely Republican candidate this time is an African-American. He's Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele.

NPR's Alix Spiegel has the story.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

Almost from the moment Michael Steele announced his bid for the U.S. Senate, African-American leaders in the State of Maryland were warning their constituents away. Steele told NPR last fall that his critics were passionately opposed to him.

Lieutenant Governor MICHAEL STEELE (Maryland): Because, quote, "My values don't represent the masses of black people," which I found amusing since those values were given to be by the black woman who raised me.

SPIEGEL: That's right. Michael Steele is an African-American. In fact, as Lieutenant Governor he is the first African-American elected to statewide office in the history of Maryland. He is also a Republican, someone who believes deeply in the principles of his party, and who wants to convince other African-Americans that Republicans have a lot to offer them.

Lt. Gov. STEELE: What I try to do is say is at least look at some of the ideas. Give us a chance, we'll give you a choice. Give us the opportunity to present a different vision. And you decide for yourself whether or not you buy it, and if you want to be a part of it.

SPIEGEL: And that, as far as the Maryland Democratic Party is concerned, is the problem. You see, Maryland has the highest percentage of African-Americans outside of the Deep South. And it's well-known that just like many other ethnic groups, when given a choice, African-Americans tend to vote for other African-Americans. So Steele's bid raises an interesting question. If the Democratic nominee ends up being white, what will happen to the African-American vote? Is loyalty to the Democratic Party more important than loyalty to race, or vice-versa?

Mr. DEREK WALKER (Executive Director, Maryland Democratic Party): There's not a lot of history that we can use as a precedent for this election.

SPIEGEL: This is Derek Walker, executive director of Maryland's Democratic Party. Walker says that in Maryland, the only other time that this question was tested was during the 1980s, when Republican Alan Keyes ran for Senate. But he says his party didn't feel that they had good exit polling on how the race turned out. Which is why a couple of months ago, the Maryland Democratic Party commissioned a study of African-American attitudes towards Steele.

Mr. WALKER: The fact that it is a new terrain was one of the motivations for wanting to understand voter attitudes at an early point.

SPIEGEL: This confidential report, prepared by Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, was recently leaked to the press, and has since caused a bit of an uproar. According to the study, as much as 44 percent of black voters could abandon their traditional allegiance to the Democrats. Twenty-two percent said that they would support Steele when he was matched against a quote "generic" Democratic candidate. That would make it far harder for a Democrat to win.

Although the report's author, Cornell Belcher, wouldn't speak specifically about the contents of the report, he did say this about African-American voters.

Mr. CORNELL BELCHER (Democratic Pollster): You can't take for granted that they will not be attracted to Steele, in ways that they haven't been necessarily attracted to other Republicans.

SPIEGEL: But David Bositis, a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who's made a career of studying African-American voting behavior, questions the conclusions of Belcher's report.

Mr. DAVID BOSITIS (Researcher, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies): If you look at the record of black Republicans candidates among African-Americans, the record is, to be charitable, pathetic.

SPIEGEL: Bositis says that historically African-Americans distrust of the Republican Party has been so great that it outweighs the race of the GOP candidate. They just don't think Republicans serve their interests.

Mr. BOSITIS: And in fact those black Republicans who've been elected have generally been elected in white constituencies.

SPIEGEL: So will Steele successfully woo African-American voters away from their traditional home? One local African-American leader, a state senator name Lisa Gladden, who's a Democrat, recently shared her view of the issue. Party trumps race, she said. Party trumps race.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

CHADWICK: And NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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