WASHINGTON—There are people who don't want a black man elected to the United States Senate. And contrary to the impression from some in the media, they're not all Republicans, and they're not all in the South.
You may have heard about ads aired this fall against Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, which many analysts denounced as "racist." You probably have not heard as much about the longer campaign against Republican Michael Steele in Maryland. Both men are African-Americans.
Democrats and liberals have been hitting Steele since he first ran for lieutenant governor and helped Republicans take the Annapolis statehouse in 2002. They continue to do it this fall as he threatens to defeat Democrat Ben Cardin and take the Senate seat long held by Democrats.
Steele, 48, is an affable, well-educated attorney—Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown Law—who served as state Republican Party chairman before seeking elected office himself. Maryland Democrats, accustomed to a lock on power, and to the loyal support of African-Americans, didn't take Steele's bid for office well.
In 2001, Maryland Senate President Thomas Miller Jr. called Steele "the personification of an Uncle Tom."
Miller later apologized.
In 2002, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives as party whip, called Steele a "token" candidate.
Hoyer later said he was quoted out of context.
In 2005, as Steele started exploring a Senate campaign, two staffers at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee obtained Steele's personal credit report as part of their research on him.
The aides later resigned. The committee apologized.
Also in 2005, a liberal, African-American blogger posted a doctored photo of Steele in minstrel blackface, with the headline, "Simple Sambo wants to move to the big house" and the caption "I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the big house."
The blog was one of several reachable through the Web site of the DSCC. When the Democrats learned of the offensive content of the blog, they removed the link.
This summer, a junior aide to Cardin posted a blog suggesting that Steele staffers had to hide their Oreo cookies, lest they offend Steele. The deception wouldn't be needed, she wrote, "had an angry citizen not thrown the aforementioned delicious snack food at one of our opponents to comment on his lack of racial loyalty."
The reference is to an incident where, Steele said, he was greeted by Democrats throwing the cookies, which are seen in some quarters as a codeword for African-Americans who are black on the outside but white on the inside.
This fall, Hoyer told a group of black business owners that Steele "slavishly" followed the national Republican Party.
There's no doubt that Steele is running away from President Bush and the national party. There's also little doubt that invoking slavery is a loaded message before a black audience.
Cardin called Steele's complaints about racial politics a diversion. ""He's looking for every excuse he can to avoid talking about the issues," Cardin said.
"I'm tired of these disgusting comments and racial attacks," Steele said in a letter to contributors. "There's no place for these attacks in this campaign, and there is no room in the Senate for people who hurl these racial slurs."
All this reflects more than just sniping at one candidate. It's part of a new and critical struggle between the two major parties over the black vote.
As my McClatchy Washington bureau colleague Bill Douglas pointed out recently, Democrats have lost the vice-like grip they had on the African-American vote. Black enthusiasm for Democrats has dropped. And a black Republican in the Senate might cut black-voter loyalty to Democrats even more.
"If we have a situation where Mr. Steele were to win, the Republicans would treat it as a major victory for them with the African-American vote and spin it to the high heavens," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a former president of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Douglas. "We realize we have to work hard to capture every vote."
And they're working hard as well to make sure none of those votes go to Steele. Some anti-Steele tactics crossed the line of racial fairness.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)