Ken Blackwell is a man on a mission. A hulking former college football player who currently serves as Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Blackwell is running this year to become Ohio’s first African-American governor. And he faces his first test in achieving this feat when he squares off next week in a competitive GOP primary, which he’s favored to win.
He isn’t the only one on a mission, though. Two years after Illinois Democrat Barack Obama was elected to the Senate (becoming the third African-American since Reconstruction to serve in that chamber), the Republican Party is featuring four top-tier African-American candidates -- Blackwell, Keith Butler in Michigan, Michael Steele in Maryland and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania. All of them are running for either a Senate seat or governorship in states with sizable black populations.
For Republicans, these candidates present a chance to add fresh (and diverse) faces to their party. Perhaps more important for the GOP, their Fab Four offer the tantalizing opportunity to peel away a crucial bloc of the Democratic base: African-American voters, who have sided with Democrats in the last two presidential elections by about a 9-to-1 margin.
"Our party for the longest time has relied on the votes of white guys," Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said in an interview. "I think that all of these candidates are going to improve our party, our policies, and our nation." (Mehlman was quick to point out, though, that his job precludes him from endorsing the two candidates who are engaged in GOP primaries: Blackwell and Butler.)
Yet, according to political handicappers, not one of the four is favored to win in November. If Blackwell triumphs in the May 2 Ohio primary, he’ll face a well-financed Democrat in a state where Republicans have been hurt by ethics and corruption scandals.
Butler is trailing another GOP candidate in polls and fundraising in his Michigan Senate race. Steele is running for the Senate in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1. And Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star, is a political novice running for governor against a proven Democratic incumbent.
An uphill battle
Indeed, these four candidates demonstrate that it’s not always easy being a black Republican running for higher office. For one thing, the party of Lincoln in the last 40 years often hasn’t had the best history with blacks -- whether it was the GOP’s Southern Strategy (to appeal to Southern white voters after passage of the Civil Rights Act), Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign kick off in Philadelphia, Miss. (the place where three civil-rights activists were murdered in 1964), or President Bush's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
But that history is something Republicans are trying to change. Last summer, before Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast, the RNC's Mehlmangave a speech to the NAACP apologizing for the GOP’s Southern Strategy. “No matter how many elections Republicans win … the party of Lincoln will not be whole again … until we effectively and forthrightly respond to the cause of the African-American community,” he said. “Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice.”
This year, these four candidates face an additional problem: the sinking fortunes of their party. In fact, few Republican candidates -- no matter their skin color - are having an easy time running for office in a political environment where President Bush’s approval rating is in the 30s, and Congress’ is even lower than that. “It is such a bad cycle for Republicans,” said Jennifer Duffy, who monitors Senate and gubernatorial contests for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Does Steele have the best chance?
While Blackwell, Butler, Steele, and Swann get lumped together because of their race, they are all very different candidates. Swann is hoping his football star celebrity appeals to Pennsylvania voters; Steele, Maryland’s lieutenant governor, is casting himself as a pragmatic moderate (although Democrats would disagree);Butler is both a pastor and a millionaire; and Blackwell is a bold and ambitious conservative who has been in politics for 30 years.
Experts say that the candidate best positioned to win in November might be Steele in Maryland’s Senate race, mainly because he faces no primary opposition while Democrats do. What's more, if the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, who is white, wins that contest -- over former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, who is black -- the thought is that some African-American voters might bolt to Steele. Indeed, an internal Democratic survey recently leaked to the media noted that as many as 44 percent of likely black voters in Maryland would be open to Steele’s message (although public polls show him grabbing about 20 percent of the African-American vote).
"Steele is a unique challenge, and Democrats have to take him seriously," said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who conducted that internal survey, but who refused to discuss its contents since it was a private poll. Democrats, he added, can no longer look at African-American voters as get-out-the-vote targets. "We need to look at them as persuadable voters." Still, Belcher and Democrats say they’re confident their message and outreach can win over these voters.
Yet even if Steele does well with African-Americans, says Derek Walker of the Maryland Democratic Party, he still would lose in this heavily Democratic state due to his ties to the GOP and Bush (whose approval rating among blacks is incredibly low). “That is going to hurt him substantially,” Walker argued. “I think he’s caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Of course, Blackwell and his camp think they're also well positioned to win in November.
If Blackwell wins the May 2 primary, Ohio political expert John C. Green of the University of Akron says he has the potential to do well with African-American voters in a general election, since he’s performed well among them (by Republican standards) in his past campaigns. Green also notes that Blackwell’s appeal to religious voters and his conservative views -- the Chicago Tribune has called him the anti-Obama -- could help him with African-Americans who oppose abortion and gay marriage.
At the same time, however, Blackwell’s high-profile role in the 2004 election could hurt him with these same voters.
Critics charge that Blackwell, who served both as Ohio’s chief election official and as state co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign, was to blame for the long lines and a dearth of voting machines in predominately African-American polling places in Ohio, which they contend was intended to depress black (and thus Democratic) turnout.
But Blackwell and his campaign vociferously deny that accusation, arguing that Ohio experienced huge voter turnout in 2004, and that there were long lines in both white and black communities.
They add that the only ones who are complaining are liberal Democrats and bloggers. “When you come down to the communities, it is something that is not an issue,” said Blackwell campaign spokesman Carlo LoParo.
Still, political analysts believe that the political scandals plaguing the GOP in Ohio -- Republican Gov. Bob Taft last year pleaded no contest to violating state ethics laws, for example -- might be Blackwell’s biggest hurdle in a general election.
“He’s got the money. He’s got the social conservatives,” says Duffy of Cook Political Report. “But how does he do in Ohio? How does any Republican do in Ohio?”
That question, of course, can be taken a step further: How does any Republican -- who is black -- do in Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, or Pennsylvania? Not well, it appears right now. But a victory in November by any of these four candidates would certainly transform the Republican Party -- and maybe American politics.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Holly Phillips contributed to this article.