Republican Sen. Trent Lott’s unsuccessful fight to survive the fallout over his racially charged remarks and Al Gore’s decision not to run for president could shake up both political parties’ approach to attracting black voters.
Mr. Lott’s mistakes complicate the Republicans’ minority recruitment efforts but could also give them an opportunity to build bridges, analysts of black politics say.
Mr. Gore’s departure means the support of black Democratic voters who were loyal to him in the 2000 presidential election is now a prize the party’s remaining presidential prospects will compete to win.
It’s as if “great big pieces of ice have collided in the ocean,” said black historian Roger Wilkins of George Mason University. “All of a sudden, we’re in a moment that is fluid.”
Mr. Lott’s recent comments that the country would have been better off if Sen. Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 on a segregationist ticket had the Senate majority leader fighting to keep that job until he said Friday he would step down.
Mr. Lott has been apologizing profusely for his comments and talking about how he can make amends.
“It seems this is the the Republicans’ opportunity,” said Mr. Wilkins, “especially if the Republicans respond in a way that reaches out to black people, do things young blacks can look at and say ‘that’s interesting.’”
David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, said there’s a growing number of blacks especially younger ones who could find some Republican positions appealing if the GOP made a determined effort to attract them.
“But the Trent Lott thing is just one more example where you have the Republican Party appearing to be mired in the past about race,” Mr. Bositis said.
President Bush and his team have been making a determined effort to win more minority voters and hope they can make progress with programs such as school vouchers, which raise interest among blacks frustrated with their public schools, and government aid funneled through religious groups.
But Mr. Lott’s comments touched a nerve in a country trying to put the segregation era behind.
“This is clearly a very serious matter, one that can have lasting effects,” said Florida Republican Chairman Al Cardenas, who is active in the GOP’s Hispanic outreach efforts.
Chris DePino, chairman of the Connecticut GOP, said winning over minorities is crucial in Northeastern states. The anger over Mr. Lott’s comments is caused more by perception than reality, “but the perception rules,” said Mr. DePino, who is white.
While Republicans figure out how to cut their losses in the Lott situation, Democrats are looking for ways to bolster their appeal in a community that often votes for them by a 9-1 margin.
Donna Brazile, a leading black Democratic strategist, said Mr. Gore was the strong favorite of black lawmakers and mayors. “Now the black vote is up for grabs.”
Likely Democratic candidates in 2004 have already been reaching out to blacks, especially in Southern states such as South Carolina and Virginia, which are likely to have early contests in the 2004 presidential race.
President Clinton was popular among blacks and Mr. Gore was known for his connection to him. Other Democratic contenders, however, are not well known among black voters.
“That will create some serious competition,” said Democratic pollster Ron Lester, who is black. “That is a good thing. They will have to go in with some solid proposals. Each candidate will have to have an African-American outreach program.”
Mr. Wilkins said the entire country is getting a stark reminder of the racial politics of the past because the Lott situation “is providing a tutorial for young people both black and white.”
Will Lester covers politics and polling for the Associated Press.