Friday, September 22, 2006

Is there such a thing as a "Steele Democrat"?

The Baltimore Sun is reporting on a spate of blue signs that have been appearing in Maryland reading "Steele Democrat." [sic] Those who are carrying these signs around claim that they're designed to express the fact that they're Democrats who support Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele, but the signs are confusing, many others claim, saying that they seem to suggest that Steele is a Democrat.

Sure enough, they look like regular campaign signs that announce a candidate's name and party affiliation, so you could hardly blame someone for being confused. The root of the "Steele Democrat" [sic] signs' issue was the recent Democratic primary contest, where Democrat Ben Cardin closely but clearly beat Democrat Kweisi Mfume. Apparently some in the Mfume campaign feel they've been shafted by the Democratic establishment for not supporting their candidate, who is prominent in his own right—he's the president of the NAACP, no less. Mfume has said he'd support Cardin in the general election, but that hasn't stopped Mfume's own son from throwing his support behind Steele.

Why is Steele, an empty-suit Republican, getting this support? It might be race—the simple, outmoded formula that black people would prefer a black candidate to all others, positions be damned. But it could also be that this is the jilted Mfume supporters' way to express resentment over the Democratic Party's support for Cardin. If that's the case, then it's more of a matter of intraparty resentment. But why would the Steele campaign okay signs that obscure his political affiliation?

Try this on for size: this Maryland Senate seat has long been considered fairly safe for the Democrats, and it still might bear out as such, right? So maybe Steele and the Republican Party are just experimenting with tactics to see if they can drive more blacks to vote Republican.

It makes sense. Just having black skin probably isn't enough for a candidate to grab enough of the black vote in any given election. That may have been true at one time, but it probably isn't anymore. So it looks like the Steele campaign is throwing everything they've got at the wall to see what sticks. They were trotting out the old "the Democrats are the KKK party" distortion just a couple of days ago. Now they're suggesting that Steele is a Democrat, albeit indirectly. Steele's also running TV ads that don't hint at his party affiliation. (They also don't talk about any of his positions.)

Maybe some of this will work. Maybe none of it will work. But succeed or fail, this will help conservative Republicans get a better idea of what tactics work to snap up more of the black vote. In an election they're not likely to win, going unorthodox is a really good idea: they'll be able to take the lessons learned here and apply them to other races. I think it's a brilliant idea. I also don't think it's solely the work of the Steele campaign—this seems to be more likely political laboratory work on the part of the national Republican Party.

I can see this backfiring in a major way. But it might not. Regardless, the Cardin campaign needs to start punching back at this aggressively. The circus-like air of the Steele campaign could get to be a real problem, if it continues to be ignored.

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