Friday, April 14, 2006


Maryland Mischief

The New York Sun follows up on The Washington Post's story last week on the conniptions that Michael Steele is causing Maryland Democrats:

Democrats' victory calculus has long relied on capturing virtually all of the black vote. Now a 37-page report, based on a telephone survey of 489 black likely voters and presented by Cornell Belcher, a pollster handpicked by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, suggests that some of that support may be slipping away

"At this time, a majority of African-American voters are open to supporting Steele, particularly younger voters," Mr. Belcher concluded.

"Steele's messaging to the African American community has clearly had a positive effect - with many voters reciting his campaign slogans and his advertising," the report found. Younger black voters, especially men, as well as churchgoers and single mothers, tended to be "very open to Steele's value messaging."

Mr. Belcher recommended strong action. "Democrats must be aggressive, Steele is a unique challenge," he wrote. "Democrats can not afford to wait until after the primary election to knock Steele down. A persuasion campaign should start as soon as possible to discredit Steele as a viable candidate for the [black] community."

Mr. Belcher spelled out how to discredit Mr. Steele: "Connecting Steele to National
Republicans, especially on issues such as Medicare reform and Social Security
privatization, can turn Steele into a typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African American candidate."
Now, something that should be kept in mind is that Maryland has one of the largest black populations outside of the Deep South -- nearly 27 percent of the voting-age population. However, until Steele came along, no black had been elected statewide. Indeed, Democrats haven't even nominated an African-American for statewide office. Heck, in 2002, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend picked a white Republican as her running mate!

Republicans at least have nominated four minority candidates for statewide office. In addition to the winnng Steele, Alan Keyes ran twice and Linda Chavez once for U.S. Senate (though each were handily defeated, neither campaign was a "joke" effort in the way that Keyes' run against Barack Obama in '04 was).

And even in this contest, the Maryland and national Democratic elites have coalesced around white candidate Rep. Ben Cardin. The person who announced first was former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who had just recently stepped down as president of the NAACP.

Mfume is a conventional liberal, but tried to play "good cop" at the NAACP to Julian Bond's "bad/insane cop." In the process, he helped build back the civil rights organization's financial footing that had eroded under the disastrous tenure of Benjamin Chavis.

Mfume was not without his faults. While at the NAACP, he dated a woman who was a subordinate. Another
later charged sexual harassment. Still, should that accusation have been enough for the entire Democratic establishment to turn from someone who, during his career in the House was one of the most memorable chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus?

The fact is that Mfume is well-positioned, if he so chooses, to play hardball with the Democratic establishment. If anything, the DNC memo could be interpreted as saying that black voters refuse to be taken for granted in the Democratic-heavy state. If the Democrats don't want to nominate a black candidate, African Americans can still support one of their own in the general election.

So, Mfume can honestly say (behind close doors, at least), "I'm the only candidate who can keep the heretofore-most-loyal part of the Democratic base in our camp in the general election."

Indeed, if that ploy worked and Mfume won, it would set up one of the more interesting races in the nation's history. Indeed, Maryland and the country could do far worse than have a well-fought contest between two serious, well-qualified, African-American candidates, each with fascinating life stories -- one a Democrat and one a Republican.

Quite different from the Obama-Keyes farce, this would be an historic, honestly intriguing campaign, where race would be simultaneously omnipresent and irrelevant.

If nothing else, it would force the Democrats to come up with another way of going after Steele than the fact that he's -- gulp! -- black and Republican.

UPDATE: To further complicate the calculus, the Washington Post's polling analyst, Richard Morin talks about the still rather high number of whites willing to bolt their party on Election Day if it nominates a black candidate:
[W]hite Republicans nationally are 25 percentage points more likely on average to vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate when the GOP hopeful is black, says economist Ebonya Washington of Yale University in a forthcoming article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. White independents are similarly inclined to vote for the white Democrat when there's a black Republican running, according to her study of congressional and gubernatorial voting patterns
between 1982 and 2000, including five Senate races in which the Republican nominee was black.

Her analysis suggests that GOP "white flight" in the Maryland Senate race could mean at least an additional 1 or 2 percent of the vote goes to the Democrat, and perhaps more -- but only if the candidate is white. Together, independents who would otherwise vote for a white Republican plus GOP deserters may easily swamp any increase in black Democratic crossover to Steele.

Neither the author of the study, nor Morin seem to raise the possibility that there could be a justifiable non-racial reason on the part of voters for this phenomenon -- the quality of the candidate. In many of these races, I would bet that the stature/qualification gap between the (white) Democrat and the (black) Republican was so great that it was impossible for any voter -- to support the black Republican. Until recently, it was more likely that Republicans would run a minority as a "sacrifice" candidate because the race didn't seem winnable from the start. Earlier, I said that the Keyes and Chavez Senate campaigns in Maryland in the '80s and '90s were not "joke" contests. I stand by that -- but, at the same time, against Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, neither candidate really stood a chance. No wonder the elections were blowouts -- and undoubtedly many Republicans crossed over to vote for the Democrat.

By the way, this happens with all white candidates as well. In 2004, the New York state GOP put up a white "sacrifice" candidate to run against incumbent Chuck Schumer -- the little-known Upstate Assemblyman Howard Mills. He was clobbered, 71-29 -- the biggest landslide statewide loss in New York history (Mills was compensated with a nice sinecure for which he was totally unqualified -- state insurance commissioner). You can most definitely bet that a large segment of Republicans voted for Schumer.

In decided contrast with past years, the GOP today is putting forward individuals like Steele, and gubernatorial candidates Ken Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania: These are all serious candidates, raising serious money and with the serious backing of the state and national party apparatus. Most significantly, they all have long-standing ties and relationships to their states and communities (in Maryland, both Keyes and Chavez were Washington suburb types with little connection to the broader Maryland). I would be very surprised if quite the level of white flight discussed here happens this year.

But, even if it does, that still raises the question inferred in the original post. What do white voters do if both candidates are black (as would be the case if Mfume wins the primary)? Vote on the issues? Stay home? Move?

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