On Thursday’s Countdown show on MSNBC, New York Times columnist Frank Rich charged that it looks "morally bad" and "idiotic" that Republicans have not elected a black candidate to federal office in six years. The Republican party also seemed to remind Rich of South Africa’s racist Apartheid policy of the past: "The fact is, this isn`t South Africa 25 years ago, this is a major political party that is essentially all white. And the hierarchy of it is definitely white. There hasn`t been a new black Republican elected to federal office, I think, in six years. And so, what does that tell us about the party? And how does that look to voters? I think it looks like it`s the party of the last century. It looks bad. Not only is it morally bad, but politically. I think it`s idiotic because it`s against the whole demographics of this country and where they’re going."
But Rich ignored the fact that Republicans have routinely tried to elect black candidates to federal and other high offices, only to have them defeated by Democrats in the general election in most cases. Former Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele represented the GOP as he vied for the Senate in 2006, only to be defeated by Democratic candidate Benjamin Cardin in the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Maryland. In the Ohio Governor’s race in 2006, former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell represented the Republican party but was defeated by Democrat Ted Strickland. And Lynn Swann lost in his bid to unseat Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Ed Rendell in 2006. Also, according to the Associated Press, black Republicans represented their party in elections in eight congressional districts the same year, but all were unsuccessful. Rich even ignored the appointments of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Rod Paige to Cabinet-level positions in the Bush administration.
On Thursday’s Countdown, host Keith Olbermann brought up the race of those who have attended campaign events for John McCain and Sarah Palin as he contended that there were few "darker faces" in the crowds, and cited Bill Clinton’s reference to the "diversity of the crowd" at a recent Barack Obama rally. Below is a transcript of the exchange between Olbermann and Rich from the Thursday, October 30 Countdown on MSNBC:
KEITH OLBERMANN: There was something else in there that I thought watching that last night from Kissimmee, that [Bill] Clinton pointed out, "the diversity of the crowd". It`s a nice polite way of saying something that is part of something unpleasant, I think, but true, I think. If you looked at the McCain crowds early on, it was not that darker faces were totally missing, but there were few, but there were those scattered.
FRANK RICH: Yes.
OLBERMANN: If you watch now, it seems to me, and maybe I`m wildly wrong about this, almost none, almost none and especially at the Palin events. There`s a homogeneity to those crowds. And again, I`m trying to be as nice as possible about this, but there was, only Clinton could get away with saying that in that way, don`t you think?
RICH: I agree. And I don`t think we have to be quite so nice about it. The fact is, this isn`t South Africa 25 years ago, this is a major political party that is essentially all white. And the hierarchy of it is definitely white. There hasn`t been a new black Republican elected to federal office, I think, in six years. And so, what does that tell us about the party? And how does that look to voters? I think it looks like it`s the party of the last century. It looks bad. Not only is it morally bad, but politically. I think it`s idiotic because it`s against the whole demographics of this country and where they’re going.
Below is a November 9, 2006, AP article titled "Despite Party’s Effort, Black Republicans Come Up Short," by Philip Elliott, which enumerates black Republican candidates from the 2006 elections:
Memo to Republican chief Ken Mehlman regarding recruiting black candidates: Try again.
Republicans had hoped to hail 2006 as the year of the black Republican. But with high-profile failures in Maryland's Senate race and in governor contests in Ohio and Pennsylvania, prospects for GOP gains among black voters turned up short this year and gave scant hope for 2008.
Michael Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, lost by almost 10 percentage points to Rep. Ben Cardin. Ken Blackwell, a conservative darling who would have been Ohio's first black governor, lost by almost 24 percentage points; Lynn Swann lost his bid for the Pennsylvania governor's office by 21 percentage points.
The three black Republicans were touted as a new front for the party, a position the GOP didn't shy from Wednesday.
"History will show, these candidates represent a new breed of Republican leaders," said Tara Wall of the Republican National Committee. "This is just the beginning."
Wall insisted that Tuesday's performance wouldn't hinder Republican efforts to recruit candidates for future races. The RNC scheduled more than 100 outreach events to mobilize black voters, with more anticipated during the 2008 cycle, which began Wednesday.
"So what, if they don't win?" asked Ron Walters, a former campaign official with Jesse Jackson and now a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "If they can't attract the black vote, it won't pay off."
He said Republicans would have to work to identify candidates based on issues, not simply on skin color.
"It's not a question about putting up candidates. They have to have positions that are in line with the black community," Walters said.
Exit polls showed 88 percent of blacks supported Democrats, about the same level of support as in the last few elections. More than half were dissatisfied and just over a third were angry with the Bush administration. The number of blacks who said they were angry was a bit higher than the general population, but the number dissatisfied was substantially higher.
"The RNC kept talking about them like they were their candidates," said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Both of them (Swann and Steele) got the nomination because the Republicans didn't have anyone else."
Meanwhile, black GOP candidates were running in only eight House races, the lowest number since 1990. Democrats fielded 41 black candidates.
"I don't think there was ever anything there," Bositis said. "It was Ken Mehlman saying, breathlessly, we're doing all these things. .... If you're desperate, you can take whatever you think might work. They were desperate this year."
Republicans did little to help their image among blacks with its ad against Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who sought to replace Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in Tennessee and become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. The Republican National Committee ran one of the cycle's most replayed ads, featuring a bubbly blonde telling Ford to call her.
Critics said the commercial made an implicit appeal to deep-seated racial fears about black men and white women.
The National Black Republican Association also sought to highlight racial differences between candidates, airing one ad in Maryland and Ohio that argued, "Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan."
Critics assailed the spot and the group's claim Martin Luther King Jr., was a Republican, but chairwoman Frances Rice said the goal was to boost GOP support among black voters something she said polls showed, even if in small increments.
"More blacks are getting off the Democratic Party's plantation and supporting Republicans," Rice said.
Sen. Barack Obama, the Senate's only black member and a potential 2008 presidential candidate, mocked the GOP effort last week.
"Listen, I think it's great that the Republican Party has discovered black people," Obama told a crowd at predominantly black Bowie State University. "But here's the thing. ... You don't vote for somebody because of what they look like. You vote for somebody because of what they stand for."
Mehlman last year apologized for his party's "Southern strategy," aimed at exploiting voters' frustration with desegregation orders and later evolved to appeal to cultural issues.
"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," Mehlman said at the NAACP convention. "I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
President Bush followed up this summer at the convention, making his first appearance there after skipping for five years.