Clarence McKee says that if there are black Republicans who are tempted to support Barack Obama’s historic run for president, he’s not one of them.
“I’m proud of the guy; great achievement,’’ said McKee, who is one of Florida’s most prominent black members of the GOP. “But black people and liberals didn’t support (former Maryland Lieutenant Governor) Michael Steele when he ran for the Senate, and they didn’t support (NFL Hall of Fame receiver) Lynn Swann when he ran (for Pennsylvania governor in 2006), so why should black Republicans support Obama just because he’s black?’’
For McKee, who is the communications director for the Broward County Republican Party, issues like taxes, school choice and the war on terror are more important. Besides, he says, the Illinois senator would be “like Jimmy Carter’’ as president: too liberal. He says black voters are only hurting themselves by being so transparent in their loyalty to one political party.
“We’re the only voter group that shows our ‘hole card’ before the game starts,’’ he said, putting it in Blackjack terms. “Jewish voters are in play; Hispanic voters are in play; women and blue collar voters are in play. The only people not in play are black people.’’
For more than 40 years since first exercising their voting rights in 1868 – a year in which they may have provided the margin of victory for Republican Ulysses S. Grant – most black voters favored the GOP, crossing party lines in sizable numbers for the first time in 1932 to support Franklin D. Roosevelt.
By the time President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, prompting southern “Dixiecrats’’ to exit the party, African Americans had become reliable Democratic voters (though Richard Nixon received more than 30 percent of the black vote when he ran against John F. Kennedy in 1960).
Still, Jewish voters have been nearly as loyal to Democrats, giving the party more than 75 percent of their votes in each of the last three presidential races, and between 60 and 90 percent of their support dating back to 1928, according to the book, Jews in American Politics by L. Sandy Maisel and Ira Forma.
And while the situation shifted in 2000 and 2004, when George W. Bush won 35 and 40 percent, “historically, Hispanic voters outside of the Cuban community have tended to be Democrats’’ by more than two-thirds, according to Fernand Amandi, an analyst with Bendixen and Associates, a Miami polling firm specializing in the Latino vote, “though that margin has shrunk since 1996, when Bill Clinton got 72 percent of the Latino vote.’’
Still, many black Republicans see missed opportunities for both blacks and the GOP.
“The party is facing the truth that the changing demographics of America means it must better clarify its platform to appeal to the new members that are being targeted; that being blacks, Hispanics and women,’’ said Levi Williams, 39, legal counsel to the Broward Republican Executive Committee.
Williams, who last year chaired the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, admits that as a black man, he finds Obama’s candidacy compelling.
“I think every black voter in America is tempted to vote for Senator Obama, as it is a historic moment in time, and politics aside, [his election] certainly would have a positive impact on the Diaspora in America, as to the desires and ambitions of our children, especially our black males,’’ Williams said.
He isn’t alone. Nationally, prominent black Republicans like former Bush Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice, have expressed excitement over Obama’s candidacy, if not support, and so far have declined to endorse their party’s candidate, John McCain.
For Williams, as for McKee, issues come first, and he thinks McCain can garner 5 to 10 percent of the black vote ultimately. He does worry, though, that with both an African American and a woman on opposite sides of the ballot, ideas may not rule the day.
“I think unfortunately, while we have a myriad of issues on the table that need to be addressed by both candidates, ultimately what will be a driving force in this campaign, regrettably, will boil down to race and gender,’’ he said.
David Bositis, a political scientist and expert on black voting patterns who is based at the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies in Washington, disagrees. He said the election of Douglas Wilder as Virginia’s – and the country’s – first black governor in 1990 proves that white racial voting is becoming less of a factor outside of the Deep South.
Allen West, 47, a black retired Army lieutenant colonel who is running for Congress in the 22nd District against Democrat Ron Klein, also said race won’t be much of a factor, and that the election, from the top of the ticket down, will come down to “character, values and ideology.’’
“The thing is, Sen. Obama and I are totally, diametrically opposed when you look at my background as compared to his, and the lifetime of service I have in my background as opposed to his,’’ West said.
As for his own campaign, West, whose district is less than 10 percent minority, said, “If people notice that I have a really nice permanent tan, that’s nice, but I don't talk that. I’m very proud of my heritage and who I am and what my family has achieved, [but] the true measurement of a person is their character and how they carry themselves.’’
Despite the ideological support that Obama enjoys among some, Bositis predicted that many black Republicans will choose Obama, and that McCain won’t get more than 5 percent of the overall black vote – a worse showing than President Bush, who received 11 percent of the black vote in 2004.
“I think there have been Republicans in the past, including George W. Bush, who had genuine black connections,’’ Bositis said. “The problem is that [McCain] is really the first Republican nominee in a long time who is running solely on a white, southern base; because even though he is from Arizona, which is almost entirely white, his roots go back to Mississippi.’’
He added, “A lot of black Republicans are Republicans because they have business interests. But with McCain, there’s not even any business interests there. This is somebody where there’s no ‘there’ there in terms of African Americans. McCain has been in Washington for 25 years, and is supposed to be a national leader, and he’s not associated with a single black person. Not one.’’
Bositis said he sees the pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom he calls a “shout out to southern, small town Republicans,’’ as solidifying McCain’s decision to run a campaign that Bositis sees as reminiscent of Barry Goldwater’s contentious run in 1964, when “the southerners took over the Republican party,’’ and “African Americans and Republicans had their divorce.’’ (Goldwater, like McCain, is from Arizona.)
He cites the fact that just 3 percent of the delegates to the 2008 Republican National Convention were black, compared with 23 percent of Democratic convention delegates. Saying black Republican organizations are in decline nationwide, Bositis dismisses attempts by groups like the National Black Republican Association, which has launched a series of radio ads attacking Barack Obama, to attract black voters by casting the party in terms of Abraham Lincoln.
“Abraham Lincoln was from the North, whereas the Republican Party is now a southern party,’’ Bositis said.
He cited the moderate party of Lincoln in contrast with northeastern liberals like Jacob Javitz and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, or even southern Republicans like Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson or Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
“I believe that sooner or later the current manifestation of the Republican Party is going to collapse,’’ Bositis says. “And there’s quite a few Republicans who believe that as well, because they’re on the losing side of history. They want to pretend that Darwin doesn’t exist.’’
But, Bositis said, eventually the GOP can rebound with the black electorate.
“When the Republican Party reconstitutes and becomes more naturally a party of business instead of a regional party, which it is right now, their potential in terms of black support will grow exponentially. But as I’ve said to the RNC, it’s not gonna happen until you reconstitute.’’
Photo: Clarence McKee