With defeat looming in the mid-term elections, Bush's party aims to steal the Democrats' most loyal supporters, writes Paul Harris in New York
Sunday May 14, 2006
Facing disastrous poll numbers and collapsing support ahead of vital elections this year, Republican Party strategists have taken firm aim at a surprise voting bloc - black Americans.
The White House and top Republican officials have launched a blitz to persuade black people that their future will be better served by shedding decades of loyalty to the Democratic Party and voting Republican instead. Prominent black Americans, including a Hall of Fame football star, are Republican candidates in several high-profile races for November's mid-term elections.
Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been speaking at events hosted by traditional black civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Urban League. The national committee has organised at least 50 events aimed at black Americans. Later this month, Republicans will hold their first workshops for training black candidates.
If the Republican move succeeds, it will mark a reverse of one of the longest trends in US politics that has seen black Americans - who once voted Republican in the segregationist Democratic South and were often attacked by the Ku Klux Klan for doing so - shun the party after the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, when Republicans adopted a 'Southern strategy' of attracting mainly white voters. Republicans admit that they have their work cut out.
'We have a lot of ground to make up, but we have a message that is resonating,' said Tara Wall, director of outreach communications for the national committee. 'We are now talking to people we have not been talking to before.
The bare figures illustrate how tough the fight is going to be. In the last presidential election only 8 per cent of black people voted for George Bush. But, despite the odds, Republicans insist that they see grounds for optimism and, if they succeed, they say they will have prised apart one of the key foundations of Democratic electoral support.
They hope that socially conservative ideas pushed by Bush on issues such as limiting abortion and opposing same-sex marriages will appeal to many traditional black voters. They are also hoping to capitalise on the aspirations of a growing black middle class with its concepts of an 'ownership society' breaking free from government help and handouts.
Some experts believe that the chance for Republicans to appeal to black people in meaningful numbers does exist. 'The opportunity is there, especially among many African Americans who feel that the Democratic party has let them down,' said John Zogby, co-founder of the political polling firm Zogby International. Republicans can also point to such senior current and former members of the administration as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as evidence that black people have a prominent role to play in Republican politics.
At the moment, Republican hopes are placed firmly on three political races, two of them in the key battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. In Ohio, Kenneth Blackwell is the black Republican candidate for state governor, while in Maryland Michael Steele is aiming to capture one of the state's senate seats. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann is campaigning for the governorship.
All three of them are playing the socially conservative card with voters, speaking against abortion and gay marriage and pushing a platform of lower taxes and cutting government spending. All of them have appeared in venues such as black churches which are usually the preserve of Democratic candidates.
Many experts insist that the Republican Party's core base is still seen as white, conservative and from the 'heartland' states of Middle America. They also say that Hurricane Katrina set back the party's outreach efforts among minorities as the government struggled and failed to help the disaster's mainly black victims. 'Katrina was a defining moment,' said Zogby. 'There was a huge opportunity for Republicans before that, but afterwards it had undone all their work.'
Republicans argue that it is not healthy for black Americans, or US democracy as a whole, for one ethnic group to be so unswervingly loyal to one party. They point out that five decades of supporting the Democrats have brought many black people little social progress. 'It is in no one's interests for 90 per cent of African Americans to be voting for the same party again and again. It has not brought them, or anyone else, much benefit,' said Wall.
But some naked political self-interest lies behind the Republican outreach efforts. The mid-term elections, could see the party lose control of one of the houses of Congress in a mood of panic and fear. Its poll numbers have been disastrous in recent weeks and, most worrying for Republican strategists, have shown signs of a collapse in support among its conservative base.
A Gallup poll last week showed that Republican support for Bush had dropped by 13 per cent in recent weeks. Another study showed Bush had suffered a 24 per cent drop among voters who backed him in 2004. Coupled with approval ratings that are now consistently putting Bush around the 31 per cent mark, many Republicans are concerned they are about to lose their 12-year grip on Congress. Democrats believe they can wrest control of one, perhaps even both, houses of Congress. Its officials have been telling supporters of a 'historic' opportunity to rescue the party's fortunes. In particular, winning control of Congress matters because it could give Democrats the power to set up investigative committees to probe such issues as Katrina and pre-war Iraq intelligence which could help their fight for the White House in 2008.
Faced with that prospect, it is no wonder that Republicans are casting their net increasingly wide to bolster support. 'The Republicans are a holed ship and they need all the support they can get,' said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.