Race reemerges as issue for GOP

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

Shelley Mays/The Tennessean/AP
RNC chairman candidate: Chip Saltsman announced his run Dec. 8. But his holiday greeting – a racially charged parody – has offended some.

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

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.

But recognition was growing within the party that America was changing and that they needed to as well. In 2004, Ken Mehlman, then chairman of the RNC, made a concerted effort to reach out to African-Americans, and he apologized for the Southern strategy.

That didn’t sit well with some conservatives, but it did mark an opening. And as pollster John Zogby notes, an increasing number of younger African-Americans were looking for an alternative to the Democrats.

“Some felt the Democrats took African-Americans for granted. Others had issue disagreements, from school vouchers to gay marriage to abortion,” says Mr. Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International in Utica, N.Y.

Yet many in the African-American community feel that an opportunity for the GOP to expand its ranks was lost during this past election.

“What we saw at the McCain/Palin rallies – people carrying stuffed monkeys, saying this was Barack Obama, and chanting ‘kill ’em, kill ’em’ – that just ratcheted up racial hatred,” says Eric McDaniel, a political analyst at the University of Texas at Austin. “Some African-Americans may agree with [Republican] policies, but at the end of the day, they’re going to say, ‘I’m black, and you’ve made it very clear you don’t want us around.’ ”

Many people within the Republican Party would like it to move beyond its racial legacy. “I, personally, would like to see us move away from use of ‘hyphenateds’ and gender in categorizing people,” says Gary Emineth, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, who organized next week’s forum of potential leaders.

In fact, two of the five leading candidates to lead the RNC are African-American: former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Some Republicans believe their chances to win have been helped by the decision by one of their opponents to send out the racially charged parody. And some pundits think that having a black leader would help the GOP. “The signal that sends to everybody else is that ‘We’re trying,’ ” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

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