Steele was virtually unknown nationally before he was selected as the running mate of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich in 2002. But after Ehrlich and Steele surprised the political establishment by winning the Maryland statehouse, Steele became an asset, as one of the few African-American Republicans in the country elected to statewide office. He landed a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention last year, and once incumbent Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes announced he would not seek another term next year, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who recruits candidates for the GOP, aggressively pursued Steele.
With Maryland's Democratic leanings and Bush's low approval ratings, Steele faces a tough race; polls already show he trails the likely Democratic nominee, longtime Baltimore Congressman Ben Cardin. Still, Steele will have company: the GOP hopes to have several African-Americans on the ballot in Maryland, and at least two gubernatorial candidates, Kenneth Blackwell in Ohio and Lynn Swann, the ex-Pittsburgh Steelers receiver, in Pennsylvania. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman says those candidates will help as the party seeks to win black voters by showing blacks they are a part of the Republican Party: "Inclusion means you get candidates like Michael Steele."
Mehlman has been particularly aggressive in this initiative. Since taking over as head of the Republican Party earlier this year, the former White House political director has spoken at 31 events focused on outreach to African-Americans, from historically black colleges to small NAACP chapters. He's pointedly criticized the so-called "Southern Strategy" Republicans used in the past to appeal to white voters in the South by using race as a wedge issue. Mehlman's message is twofold: that some GOP policies appeal to blacks better than those of the Democrats, and that because blacks give 90% of their votes to Democrats, neither party fights for their votes. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, agrees that blacks should try to "maximize influence" by not being too closely tied to one party, but he isn't sure the GOP has done anything to deserve much support from African-Americans, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "I say one thing, back it up," Cummings said. "If [Mehlman] can synchronize his work with what the party is doing, I think that's a good thing. I haven't seen the backup."