Where Did All of the African-American Candidates Go?

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In 2006, the Republican Party boasted of several African-American candidates — Michael Steele in the Maryland Senate race and Ken Blackwell in Ohio's gubernatorial race, among others. It's now 2008, and there is nary an African-American candidate for governor or senator. What happened?


Several years ago, the Republican Party launched a highly publicized effort to engage voters and candidates of color. In 2006, the party backed two high-profile black candidates for governor, Ken Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, as well as Michael Steele for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. But they all lost and there is no similar slate of candidates this time, and their outreach plan is further complicated by the Democratic presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: Michael Steele is frustrated. The former Senate candidate doesn't like what he sees. He wants his party to get off its duff and work to bring blacks back to what he calls their political home.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Former U.S. Senate Candidate, Maryland): Stop over-thinking this problem. I get the question all the time, how do we reach out? How do we get blacks to - well, first off, stop asking the question and just do it.

KEYES: Steele says the party does have trouble engaging black voters, partly because African-Americans don't believe Republicans care about them or their issues, and, he says, worries about racism - like the magazine that referred to the prominent 2006 candidates as "lawn jockeys" - are a deterrent to prospective candidates. To change that, he says, the GOP must begin building coalitions instead of showcasing its candidates at cocktail parties.

Mr. STEELE: Coalition building is getting on the ground, going in the neighborhood, sitting in the schools, going to the community centers, talking to the people and finding out exactly what's burning them in terms of the issues. And being in a position to do something about it.

KEYES: Former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts says hand-wringing over the number of black GOP candidates misses the crux of the problem.

Mr. J.C. WATTS (Former Oklahoma Congressman): You can have 20 African-American candidates run in every cycle, but if the outreach and the diversity and having African-Americans at the strategic table at the RNC, at the NRCC and the Senate Committee in presidential campaigns, if you don't have African-Americans strategically involved in those institutions, it never works.

KEYES: Watts says the party should have followed up on the long-term plan of former Republican Party chair Ken Millman to win over the hearts and minds of African-Americans. There was evidence of some progress. The percentage of black votes for President Bush rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004, an incremental rise but a significant one for the party. Millman declined to speak to NPR for the story, but in 2005, he apologized to the NAACP for his party's failure to reach out to African-Americans. Watts says it's too late to be asking how to woo black voters.

Mr. WATTS: We should have been asking that question in putting things in place to deal with that 5-6 years ago.

Mr. DARRELL JORDAN (Press Secretary for Outreach Communications, Republican National Committee): There's definitely an effort within this building, the Republican National Committee, to reach out to all Americans, which include African-Americans.

KEYES: Darrell Jordan is the RNC's press secretary for outreach communications. He says his party has not failed in its efforts to recruit people of color. Jordan says the party's outreach program is focused on the ground level, noting that more than a hundred black Republicans are running for local and county office.

Mr. JORDAN: The outreach is still definitely there but you see it more in the grassroots level as opposed to the national level. Some of the campaigns that African-Americans are running at the state and local level aren't getting the national attention like three years ago.

KEYES: Ken Blackwell is one of the big three of 2006. He ran for governor of Ohio. He agrees that the party's trying, but he says there's something going on that Republicans may have no control over.

Mr. KEN BLACKWELL (Former Secretary of State, Ohio): This is a down cycle year. And the GOP has tarnished grant, and when you couple this with Obama-mania that is on the rise, it has made for a tough recruitment year.

KEYES: In fact, it's hard to imagine anything the Republicans could do, despite efforts like John McCain's recent Time For Action tour that included stops in the civil rights crucible of Selma, Alabama, to win over black voters. Not in a year where Barack Obama is making history on the Democratic side. But Ron Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, believes the Republican outreach to blacks isn't necessarily a lost cause.

Prof. RON WALTERS (Government and Politics, University of Maryland): African-Americans are not wed to the Democratic Party because they love Democrats. They're wed to the Democratic Party because there's a history of that party being more sensitive to their needs. If there is a real competition for them on that level, then I think you're likely to see far more African-Americans voting Republicans.

KEYES: The RNC's Jordan says his party has been doing the same outreach for 15 years. But former Congressman Watts warns if the party doesn't do something different and fast, it could see its percentage of the black vote drop to a historic low in November. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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