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Race reemerges as issue for GOP

A controversial parody raises broader questions about the Republican Party’s outreach.

By Staff writer / December 30, 2008

RNC chairman candidate: Chip Saltsman announced his run Dec. 8. But his holiday greeting – a racially charged parody – has offended some.

Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP

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State GOP leaders will gather in Washington next week to begin the process of charting a new strategy for the Republican Party.

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The issue of race will be central to the discussion, even if it’s not a specific item on the agenda.

That’s because, fairly or not, Republicans are being identified as the party of Southern white conservatives in an increasingly multicultural society. That was highlighted this week, when reports surfaced that a leading contender to take over the Republican National Committee (RNC) sent out a racially charged parody as a holiday greeting.

Reaction within the party was mixed. Many condemned it as tone-deaf. Others called the reaction to it “hypersensitivity.”

But one thing united them: a recognition that the Republican Party has to do more to reach out to different constituencies and also shake off a legacy of using race for political advantage.

“Clearly we don’t consider ourselves an all-white, all-male party. But we do understand that 2008 clearly served as a wake-up call to people in the party and the RNC that it takes more than just your base to win elections,” says Chris Taylor, spokesman for RNC chairman Robert “Mike” Duncan. “We will use a broad range of techniques to increase the amount of outreach that we’re doing.”

Within the Republican Party there’s a dispute about how to go about that, as well as a competitive contest over who will lead the GOP next. For the first time, state party leaders have organized a forum independent of the Washington apparatus of the RNC so they can quiz the candidates themselves. It will take place next week.

The issues discussed will range from how to get beyond the Beltway mentality to whether to embrace a more moderate or conservative Republican ideology. But the issue of race will be in the subtext of the discussion – in part because of the decision of a leading candidate, Chip Saltsman of Tennessee, to send out a parody called “Barack the Magic Negro” as part of his holiday greeting.

That again raised the Republicans’ uncomfortable relationship with blacks. Currently, Congress does not have a single African-American Republican, and only a handful of the GOP’s 168 national committee members are black. Fewer than 4 percent of blacks voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

“Republicans have culturally and politically become a party of Southern, conservative whites, many of whom are rural, who still have issues with race, no matter how much they will complain if you suggest that they do,” says David Bositis, a senior researcher at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading African-African research group in Washington.

The issue of race has always played a crucial role in the Republican Party. It was founded in the 1850s to fight slavery. But starting in the late 1960s, Republicans pursued a so-called Southern strategy where they openly appealed to white voters and sometimes exploited racial tensions to secure victories. As they did, African-Americans moved into the Democratic camp.

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