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Why Steele Will Win... And Blackwell Won't

By Adam Schaeffer

Blackwell and Steele have been paired this year because both are good Republican candidates who happen to be black - an obvious rarity that has brought an unusual amount of analysis their way. Both men also faced an uphill battle - Steele because of the massive Democratic advantage in Maryland, and Blackwell because of an unpopular, corrupt and profligate Ohio Republican establishment. Some months ago I wrote an analysis predicting a Blackwell win in Ohio, based on his principles, policies, history and race. But where Steele has run against a widely unpopular Washington establishment and moved within striking distance of a win, Blackwell has shied away from attacking a wildly unpopular Republican establishment in Ohio and is wallowing along with them, some twenty points down. Steele will win because he has run against the establishment, and Blackwell's chances appear hopeless because he's made friends with it.

Michael Steele has run a campaign against "Washington" because he's 2 to 1 down in party registration, and he needs a credibility that's above partisanship to win in such a Blue state. The Republican Party in the abstract has been his biggest obstacle to victory, and Steele has worked hard and successfully to cultivate his image as an independent man. His ads are a perfect blend of the light and serious, with an independent styling emphasizing the cool, strong colors of Democratic blue and steel grey to echo his name. He has cultivated credibility with unusual endorsements for a Republican, from people like Russell Simons, who has put a lot of his money and time into urban registration and get-out-the-vote drives. And this week he was endorsed by former and current Democratic officials from Prince George's county - home to a huge number of African American and traditionally Democratic voters. Steele is selling himself, first and foremost. And he's coming across as a fresh-faced reformer who is confident enough to buck both parties.

Steele has run a strong campaign that puts him right behind Cardin in the polls. He will earn a sizeable share of the black vote - over 30% is quite possible - and benefit by a low turnout from black Democratic voters. Cardin must have a large and lopsidedly Democratic turnout from black voters, who make up almost 30% of the population. My analysis of the role of race in Blackwell's campaign holds true - only much more so - in the case of Maryland. If Steele keeps the polls within 5 points of Cardin, he stands a very good chance of winning this election. The media will wake up on Wednesday to a reconfigured landscape of race, party, and politics, with national implications reverberating from the Maryland upset.

Blackwell's campaign in Ohio has gone much differently, although the path to success should have been just as clear. In my early analysis of Blackwell's candidacy, coming quick on the heels of his primary victory, I assumed he would continue to emphasize his long-standing disagreements with the state Republican establishment. Blackwell's position as a principled conservative among knaves was perfect for a general election campaign. Certainly, I wrote, "Both candidates will run as reformers who will clean up and invigorate Ohio--Blackwell will propose to do the same for the Republican Party as its leader."

The Ohio Republican Party was the biggest hurdle for him to overcome in pursuit of victory. But instead of breaking with the Party establishment, the first thing Blackwell did after the primary was cut a deal with it . . . dropping active support for the Tax and Expenditure Limit amendment limiting state spending in exchange for legislation. Blackwell ceded the high ground of principle that could have lent some independence to his campaign for the dubious benefit of an extremely unpopular establishment's support. He has hammered the issue he needed to - cutting taxes and growing jobs - but why should anyone believe him? It has been his Party that did this to Ohio. It is Blackwell's Party that raised their taxes, not Strickland's. Why on earth should Ohio voters believe anything an Ohio Republican says? Why not take a chance on Strickland?

Blackwell has largely run as the Republican establishment's candidate, mellowing his criticism and going along to get along as he did not do in the primary. "Run to the center," his advisors surely whispered. But the center of the Ohio Republican Party is a swampy lowland infested with tax-hikers and outright criminals. Ohio voters need proof of character in that word's most basic sense - a test through trial. Blackwell has not taken the risks or stoked the controversy needed to prove to a cynical electorate that he is a principled Republican. It's a very difficult task to accomplish, but there was a way for Blackwell to prove his bona fides to a skeptical public.

A sharp break with the Party, a strong denunciation of its corruption, and a call for reform would have earned Blackwell badly needed credibility and earned media. After all, the media love Republican in-fighting and candidates who criticize the Party (this year even more than most). No reporter could resist covering it - it's too delicious. And Blackwell's background supports the frame . . . he was not the Party choice, and he is a principled conservative.

Blackwell should have fired up his primary rhetoric, critical of fellow Republicans, to a blazing white inferno. He should have linked his opponent to the free-spending Republicans (a phrase like "Taft Strickland" has a nice ring to it). He should have run as a Republican reformer who, as its leader, would make his Party vote for the pro-growth policies they campaign on. With such a performance, Ohio voters might have believed a Republican who says he's a fiscal conservative.

Blackwell faced a potential Party insurrection over his support for a Tax and Expenditure Limit amendment, and he would surely have faced a revolt from the Party regulars if he had aggressively challenged the wayward Ohio Republican Party. But a Republican Party revolt would have raised Blackwell candidacy to a level of credibility no number of speeches or ads ever could. A break with the Party would have demonstrated, with real risk and conflict, that Blackwell was a different kind of Republican. And being a different kind of Republican is the only way one can win a state-wide election this year in Ohio, where even Republicans hate their Party. Picking a fight with his Party over principles would have given hope to demoralized Republicans and demonstrated character and integrity to Independents who are hungry for honest government.

Blackwell will do much better than the polls suggest, gaining as Republicans come to their senses and a significant share of the African American vote goes with their interests and values. But if Blackwell is to have any chance, he needs to run as himself this last week. Blackwell needs to attack the status-quo Republicans and declare a crusade for Party reform. Unless Blackwell hits hard by denouncing a Republican Party that has lost its way, I can't imagine how he can pull this race tight enough to win.

A Blackwell loss is the conventional certainty now. And a Steele win is beginning to seem like a live possibility to many pundits. Steele has done what he needed to do - stayed away from labels and above the fray. Blackwell ran a status-quo campaign in a year when most of the electorate is ready to vote for anything other than the status quo. Steele will win. I can only hope that Blackwell will begin to lead his Party out of the wilderness - for the next election if not for this one.

Adam B. Schaeffer is a Cincinnati native.

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