Steele's rise shows how Obama has altered landscape

The Baltimore Sun

Michael S. Steele's recent election as Republican National Committee chairman is good news for Republicans desperate to claw their way back from minority status.

Though the former Maryland lieutenant governor drew votes for reasons other than his race, his rise to the top of the party hierarchy signals that the Republican Party understands it can no longer squeeze majorities from its predominantly white voter base. In that sense, you might say that Mr. Steele's victory represents the final, if ironic, coattail victory for President Barack Obama.

Why? Because Mr. Obama fundamentally changed U.S. electoral politics in 2008 by building not one but two new multiracial coalitions.

First, during the primary against Hillary Clinton, he took what once was a losing coalition of upscale whites, young voters and die-hard liberals - think Eugene McCarthy or Howard Dean - and added to it his overwhelming support among African-Americans, who traditionally coalesced with other minorities, working-class whites and union voters to nominate candidates such as Walter F. Mondale and Al Gore.

Mr. Obama next expanded his primary coalition in the general election by picking up or expanding upon the residual portions of the Democratic vote captured by Mrs. Clinton. He flipped from about a third of the Hispanic vote against Mrs. Clinton to two-thirds against Republican nominee John McCain, and gained significantly among white union voters and college-educated voters of all stripes.

In a recent piece in The Forum, my fellow political scientist Phil Klinkner and I argue that Mr. Obama's victory was a latent victory for President Lyndon Johnson.

In 1965, Mr. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to secure ballot access for African-Americans and other minorities; the Immigration and Nationality Act, which eventually led to a massive influx of mostly Hispanic immigrants in the next four decades; and the Higher Education Act, which channeled new resources into colleges to make them more accessible and affordable. Forty-three years later, a well-educated, multiracial coalition catapulted Mr. Obama into the White House.

For years, the Republicans had managed to win presidential and down-ballot elections despite attracting small shares of nonwhite votes. In 2008, that strategy finally caught up with them. Between 2004 and 2008, the total number of white voters increased by a mere 1 percent. Meanwhile, the number of nonwhite voters increased 19 percent, with the African-American subset of that minority vote jumping 23 percent.

Enter Mr. Steele. A former Prince George's County and Maryland state party chairman, Mr. Steele was perfectly positioned to replace incumbent RNC chief Mike Duncan. Much like the gender novelty of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's 2008 vice presidential candidacy for a party that has a deficit with female voters, Mr. Steele's victory provides a patina of racial inclusiveness for the GOP. It's just a start, but a good start.

Mr. Steele will be rightly judged on his party-building efforts: reinvigorating the conservative grass roots; finding ways to repair the Republican brand, especially among the younger generation of voters; recruiting other fresh faces to run for office; and, of course, raising gobs of campaign money. Assuming nothing comes of a convicted felon's claim that Mr. Steele's 2006 campaign paid the candidate's sister for work that wasn't done, Democrats should not underestimate him.

In 2006, he lost the Maryland Senate race to Benjamin L. Cardin by 10 points in a state John Kerry carried by 13 points just two years earlier, and despite the fact that 2006 was the worst midterm cycle for Republicans since at least 1974, Mr. Steele's aggressive style and cheeky campaign ads kept the contest competitive. He and his team showed impressive skill and pluck on the day of the RNC elections.

Finally, there is 2012. For now, Mr. Steele lacks the governing experience and policy range to make a serious presidential bid. But don't be surprised if he is at or near the top of the vice presidential short list next cycle.

For a Republican Party playing catch-up in the multiracial electoral politics of the new century, Mr. Steele has emerged as a key figure.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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