The race for the Republican National Committee chairman is coming down to the final hours. And the contest could well turn on the issue of race.
That was perhaps inevitable, given that we have just elected an African American president and that the Republican Party is at a low point in its ability to attract minority voters. The decision on Friday by 168 Republican committeemen will have much to say about how the party is perceived and whether the public regards the GOP as a force to be reckoned with or a throwback to less pluralistic time in American history.
A number of the candidates, either explicitly or implicitly, are struggling with the race issue and attempting to offer themselves as the leader of a party which must become more diverse if it is to win races in an increasingly diverse electorate.
Two African American candidates, Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell, are oft-mentioned front-runners. Neither has explicitly appealed on the basis of race, and indeed when another candidate, Chip Saltsman, was roundly criticized for sending out a CD with a racial themed “joke,” Blackwell declined to join the media fray in criticizing him. However, both men offer the GOP the opportunity to shed its image as a purely southern, all white party.
Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis has been attuned to the party’s difficulties with minorities. He has spoken frequently of his upbringing as a Lithuanian immigrant who can reach out to ethnic groups not previously attracted to the Republican Party.
Katon Dawson, head of the South Carolina GOP, has a more difficult task. When it was revealed that he belonged to a “whites only” club, the Forest Lake Country Club, for over a dozen years, a minor media firestorm erupted. Dawson played the “media card” — claiming the issue was an artificial concoction of the mainstream media. He also moved to quell concern by obtaining the endorsements from two African American committeemen.