New Blood for the GOP?

Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Who would have thought even a fortnight ago that amid the great quadrennial spectacle of the Presidential Election, another fascinating political contest for national office would suddenly develop?

Who would have thought then, when issues that revolve around race appeared firmly set on the back-burner of the season's political discourse, the issue of race would take center-stage in unusual ways?

And be grounded in the state that was the home of Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator"?

And who would have thought that that state's Republican Party, which, like its counterparts everywhere has continually publicly bemoaned its inability to field viable black candidates for virtually any office, would very quickly act in a way that guaranteed its selecting a high-profile one?

Of course I'm referring to the contest for the United States Senate in Illinois—a contest which, barring a completely unforeseen development, will produce only the third African-American to sit in the U.S. Senate in the last one hundred years and only the fifth since the end of the Civil War.

That's one reason race is important in this contest.

But because both the Democratic and Republican candidates are African-Americans—the first time this has happened in a race for the U.S. Senate in American history—it is important in unusual and potentially expansive ways.

The catalyst for this stunning turn of events has been Barack Obama, a 42-year-old Illinois state senator from Chicago who swept a crowded Democratic primary field—gaining 53 percent of the vote in a field of seven—in the spring to capture the party's Senate nomination.

Obama's rising political star—he was already heavily favored in Illinois to win the general election—shot across the national political landscape when he was picked to give a major speech at the Democratic National Convention and electrified not only the convention delegates but a national audience as well.

One product of Obama's star-turn was the quick decision of the Illinois GOP, whose misfortunes in fielding a candidate for the Senate seat have been the stuff of political legend, to appoint a black candidate to oppose him: Alan Keyes.

True, GOP officials dutifully declared that Keyes' race was not a factor in his selection. According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, one top state party official said, "It just turned out to be that way. We don't look at color the way the Democrats do. We look at the candidates and where they stand on the issues …"

Media editorial reaction to such comments for the most part has ranged from incredulity to scorn.
One reason was that state GOP leaders bypassed nearly a dozen white candidates, some of whom had run in the Republican primary this spring, to choose Keyes.

The second is that Keyes, a prominent conservative activist who's twice run for president, has never lived in Illinois. He lives in Maryland, where in the 1980s and 1990s he twice ran for U.S. Senate, garnering only 29 and 38 percent of the vote, respectively, in those contests. Keyes' non-residency in Illinois is legal. In fact, he doesn't have to move into Illinois until November 2, Election Day, itself.

Those facts have produced widespread cynicism about the motives of both the conservative forces supporting Keyes and Keyes himself. For example, the Chicago Tribune last week capped an editorial about the selection with the headline "The GOP's rent-a-senator,"and the Washington Post headlined its editorial, "Mr. Keyes the Carpetbagger."

Nonetheless, I welcome the Illinois GOP's move, because in fact it underscores what Barack Obama's achievements thus far have illuminated: that many voters in Illinois and elsewhere of all sorts of backgrounds are entirely open to appeals to think about and act on more than their own bread-and-butter issues, and to recognize that those qualified to represent them can come from all sorts of backgrounds and bear all sorts of complexions.

Obama is no pioneer in illuminating that truism, far from it, as he himself has made clear. It's just that to many voters in Illinois, and now to a broader swath of Americans as well , his appeal so refreshing precisely because he's integrated his diverse ethnic heritage, his civic involvement and record of service in office, and his positions on issues of concern to voters into a formidable political persona.

Will the GOP, not just in Illinois, but across the country, get the message? Has it finally awoken to the fact that it needs to act forcefully on its rhetoric about inclusion—that there's political hay to be made from it? Does importing the highly-visible Alan Keyes to Illinois represent, as some suspect, a cynical sacrificial-lamb maneuver? Or is it evidence that Republicans really recognize their political need for new blood?

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