Opinion

Election 2010 surprise: rise of black Republicans

The Republican Party has fielded more than 30 African-American candidates this year, renewing a historic alliance.

By

In June, a Charleston businessman named Tim Scott won the Republican nomination for South Carolina's First Congressional District, defeating Paul Thurmond, the son of state political legend Strom Thurmond, with nearly 70 percent of the primary vote.

And Tim Scott is black.

Even more surprising, Mr. Scott's platform is a repudiation of Barack Obama's agenda. He promises to support a repeal of the health-care law, simplify the tax code, and cut federal spending. Overall, the GOP has fielded more than 30 African-American candidates for federal office, including Ryan Frazier in Colorado's Seventh Congressional District and Vernon Parker in Arizona's Third Congressional District.

And as the economy loses steam, and President Obama's poll numbers sag, the ultimate humiliation in this summer of Democratic discontent is to find Republicans trumpeting 2010 as "The Year of the Black Republicans."

A trend with historic roots

This trend defies modern identity politics. In the 2008 election, 95 percent of black voters chose Obama. Yet the attraction between blacks and the Republican Party is not so strange as it seems.

For a century after emancipation in 1863, black voters routinely lined up behind the Republican Party as the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Republican presidents held open federal patronage appointments as virtually the only public offices open to Southern blacks during the Jim Crow decades. Republicans in Congress sponsored civil rights legislation in 1866, 1871, 1875, and 1957, plus the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1918. In the 1930s, as New Deal Democrats began cultivating African-Americans, the Republican hold on African-American voters began to fracture. It broke down completely in the 1960s after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson endorsed the civil rights and voting rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. In 1964, 94 percent of black voters lined up behind Johnson, and every Democratic candidate since has enjoyed strong black support.

But today, many blacks have different hot-button issues: school choice, job creation, family values. And on these issues, black voters have not been well served by the Democratic leadership. After the 2004 presidential election, Democratic pollster Ron Lester warned that "there is a lot of compatibility and similarity between a lot of the positions that black folks take in terms of social issues and issues advocated by the Republicans."

Not that this triggered any great shift among black voters. John Kerry captured 88 percent of their support in the 2004 presidential election.

But Democratic pollsters noticed uneasily that Mr. Kerry's percentage had slipped two points from Al Gore's percentage of the black vote in 2000, and in swing states like Ohio in 2004, the percentage of black voters pulling the Republican lever went from 9 percent to 16 percent. The Obama candidacy reversed that slippage. But the Scott nomination may be a small reminder that the mere presence of Obama as the first black Democratic president may not be enough to satisfy African-American restlessness with Obama's party.

What have Democrats done for blacks lately?

With black unemployment at 15.6 percent, African-Americans are questioning what Democrats have done for them. What's more, this year's black Republican candidates were far from being upper-middle-class racial mascots. Scott grew up in a poor Charleston neighborhood with a divorced mother who worked double shifts as a nurse's assistant. Vernon Parker (who lost his August primary) was born to a single mother in Houston, and grew up in California with his grandmother, a housekeeper.

Still, black Republicans will have to face four decades of skepticism about GOP bona fides on race, not to mention the opposition of a Democratic party with the first African-American president as its head. But the most important question they'll face from black voters will be the one they've posed themselves to Barack Obama and his party: "What have you done for us lately?" Only if the new black Republicans can answer that question will the pendulum of black political loyalties fully swing.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President."

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