January 31, 2006
For Blackwell and Swann, 2006 May Be Different

By Peter Brown

This year we may learn more about why so many black Americans see Republicans as their enemy, and whether there is anything the GOP can do about it.

There are serious African-American Republican candidates for governor in Pennsylvania and Ohio. How they fare, among black voters and conservative whites, will tell us about 21st Century politics in an increasingly racially diverse country.

Democrats say their typical 90 percent of the black vote stems from the GOP using racially tinged issues to win white voters -three-quarters of the national electorate.

Republicans argue, and the polling supports this view, that blacks see a larger role for government than do whites, while the GOP more favors private-sector solutions.

In those states we will see if the heavily white GOP rank-and-file will back credible blacks who share their philosophy, and perhaps whether a serious black Republican candidate can get more than a smattering of African-American votes in November.

For almost two decades, national GOP leaders handpicked black sacrificial lamb candidate in races no Republican could win. Those candidates generally got the 10-15 percent of the black vote white Republicans garner.

But 2006 may be different.

Ken Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania lead polls of Republicans in advance of spring primaries.

Both are mega-swing states where the governorship is what matters since the chief executive controls patronage, judicial appointments and multibillion-dollar budgets.

The key for the Republican Party's future is not so much whether Blackwell and Swann win in November - although that would be a heck of a statement - but if they win the primaries in which the electorate is virtually all white.

Blackwell is clearly the most conservative candidate --generally the key in a GOP primary.

Swann's lead is at least partially due to his name recognition as a former Western Pennsylvania football legend for his years as a Pittsburgh Steeler Hall-of-Fame wide receiver, and ABC football commentator.

If either wins nomination, it will challenge the notion that the GOP is an all-white party. Even if one, or both, does so, it is an open question whether either can do better than the paltry black vote Republicans typically get.

Both Ohio and Pennsylvania have black populations smaller than the national average. Virginia, which elected African-American Democrat Doug Wilder as governor in 1989, has a larger than average black population.

Neither Blackwell nor Swann are running as black Republicans. They are running as mainstream conservatives who happen to be black.

Blackwell is secretary of state and a former state treasurer, a fiscal conservative and the strongest abortion foe in the race. Half of Ohio GOP voters describe themselves as "strongly pro life" in a poll commissioned by Blackwell's opponent, Attorney General Jim Petro, who once backed abortion rights but now opposes them.

A third GOP hopeful, State Auditor Betty Montgomery, the moderate in the race, recently abandoned her candidacy.

The Republican nomination may not be as valuable in historically GOP-leaning Ohio as in past years due to a scandal that has made Republican Bob Taft the nation's most unpopular governor.

Swann, who won four Super Bowls in a nine-year pro career, has worked for ABC since his 1983 football retirement. Swann has never run for public office, but has been active in GOP politics and campaigned for President Bush in 2004.

Much like Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became the governors of Minnesota and California, Swann must translate celebrity into support.

So far, he is doing ok. A Quinnipiac University poll showed Swann leading former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton, the son of a former governor, by 10 points in the GOP race. Polls disagree who would win a November face-off of Swann and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Swann, like Ventura and Schwarzenegger, is a good communicator without a political paper trail. He says he is anti abortion and pro-business, but has been vague otherwise.

Whether Blackwell and Swann can win lily-white GOP primaries, and if so, whether normally Democratic black voters will cross over to vote for one of their own, makes these races worth watching.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University
Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

Peter Brown

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