No Republican has won a Senate race in Maryland in more than a quarter-century, and the reason is not hard to understand. Democrats in the decidedly blue state outnumber Republicans by two to one. Yet the GOP candidate, Michael Steele, is running competitively this year. Steele is African-American, and the closeness of the contest has forced both parties to battle for the sizable black vote. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.
More than 250 people turned out recently for an NAACP-sponsored debate at an African-American church in Maryland's Charles County. They listened intently as Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele mixed it up with independent Kevin Zeese. The Democrat, Congressman Ben Cardin, didn't appear because of a scheduling conflict.
Organizers say the area is predominantly democratic, but many in the mostly black crowd said they're casting their ballots for Steele next week.
Kendra Jaimeson is a registered Democrat, but says she likes what this Republican has to say.
"Some of the things he stands for — schools for the children — that's one of the main things that stand out for me, and also knowing that he's a Christian - that's a big No. 1 thing," Jaimeson says.
As others nearby nod in agreement - Jaimeson says that she'd also like to see a person of color in that Senate seat.
"I think that he would be a good person because he'd also be the first black one for the state of Maryland and it would be nice to have another race there for a change," Jaimeson says.
Among the few African Americans who attended a recent Catholic Business Network Crabfest in predominantly African American Prince George's County, the verdict on Steele was mixed.
Patrice Lattimore says she voted for Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP, who lost to Cardin in the Democratic primary. She says she feels betrayed by the Democratic Party and says she'd consider voting for Steele.
"If Steele had issues that concerned me and he covered them the way I want to hear about them, then I would vote for him," Lattimore says. "But I won't vote for him just because he's black and I'm black."
Steele, the state's lieutenant governor and former chairman of the Maryland GOP, has been a rising star in the party for years. He was among the African Americans who toured the country trying to boost black turnout for President Bush in 2004. Now, he says, blacks are embracing his candidacy.
"That doesn't mean I can stop working," Steele says, "but there are some in the community looking favorably on me. They don't see the party label; they see the man."
Any inroads Steele makes in the black community would be at Cardin's expense. Oren Shur, his campaign spokesman, says Cardin is working hard to energize African American voters. Shur says African Americans know what's at stake here.
"Ben Cardin is standing up to President Bush, putting Maryland's community first," Shur says. "Michael Steele supports Bush, and voters are gonna know that when they go to the polls and that's what's going to drive their choice."
Cardin's camp is also bringing in a lot of star power, like a recent Baltimore rally featuring former President Bill Clinton, who remains beloved in the black community.
77-year-old Pearlie B. Pitt was in the front row at the rally and says Cardin's her guy.
"I'm for him," Pitt says. "He knows the Hill front and backwards. He didn't start yesterday. He's seen good times and bad times and now it's his time. He will get in."
Pitt echoes the opinion of many blacks at the Cardin rally and elsewhere, who say that Steele is a good man, but they don't trust him.
"You see how a clothesline swings on both sides if the wind is blowing?" Pitt says. "That's what I'm saying about Steele."