01/12/2009 12:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An African-American Leader is the GOP's Last and Best Hope

The GOP can do one thing to avoid being relegated to a near permanent, also ran party nationally. That is to turn the party reins over to Michael Steele, an African-American. Steele is one of six candidates for the Republican National Committee top spot. Ken Blackwell, who's black, is also a candidate for the RNC chair. But he is a hard line social conservative. He has near nil appeal to minority and younger white college educated business and professional voters. His election as chair would send the same old signal that the GOP is still stuck deep in a political time warp. Worse, Blackwell is still widely reviled for stonewalling an accurate presidential vote count in Ohio in 2004 that effectively tipped the election to Bush.

Steele by contrast is a moderate, consensus builder who pulled off a near political miracle by making a credible showing in the Senate race in Maryland in 2006. The state is lopsided Democratic and black voters make up nearly thirty percent of the state's electorate.

The country's fast changing ethnic vote demographics, though, tell why the GOP faces the peril of being shoved to the political margin without a quick volte face. From 1992 to 2008 black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters soared from 12 to 25 percent of the nation's electorate. College educated whites make up about thirty five percent of the vote. During the same period, blue collar white voters shrunk from more than half of the nation's voters to less than forty percent. Obama handily won the Hispanic and Asian vote and obliterated McCain with the black vote. He split nearly even with McCain the votes of college educated whites. This isn't likely to change. Immigration, higher birth rates, and the youth trends will continue to swell the numbers of minority and youth voters. The white electorate overall will continue to decline.

It's not only the numbers that work against the GOP. It's also ideology. The Democrat's expanding core base of voters is more moderate, socially active, and pro government; the diametric opposite of what the GOP purports to stand for.

Ultra conservative talk show shock jocks and a narrow band of Southern GOP politicians loudly protest that the GOP should resist all talk of reversing political direction and touting diversity and inclusion. Other GOP purists scream that race should have nothing to do with picking a new RNC chairperson. That would fly in the face of the decades old sacred credo of a color-blind America.

That's nothing but PR political shop talk. Race politics has always been a major part of the GOP's political calculus. The Southern Strategy typified that. The strategy was simple; say and do as little as possible about civil rights, talk God, country and patriotism, use racially tinged code words and furiously court white males. The strategy worked like a political charm for four decades. It was the path to the White House for Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush.

The first hint that the strategy had begun to fray came in 2000. Bush faintly sniffed the wind of change and pushed diversity and inclusion at that year's GOP presidential convention. The number of black and Hispanic delegates at the convention modestly jumped and Bush paid mild lip service to the notion that the GOP had to be a bigger tent for voters. But it was mostly talk. Bush still banked heavily on winning the white South and the Border States to bag the White House. He got nearly all of these states that election. But that was no guarantee that he could win them all again in 2004.

Bush, and then political kingpin Karl Rove and RNC chair Ken Mehlman, bought some insurance. They nakedly played the GOP version of the race card and dumped millions into a campaign to court Hispanic and black and Hispanic conservative evangelicals, and younger black business and professionals. It worked in Ohio and Florida. Bush modestly bumped up the percentage of the black vote he got in those must win states. He got more than forty percent of the Hispanic vote and an even bigger percent of the Asian vote nationally. That helped seal the White House for him.

This should have been the wake up call that the nation's voter demographics were changing, and changing fast. And that if the GOP was to win, or even to stay competitive nationally with the Democrats in 2008 with a crashing economy and failed war, it could not do political business in the old way. But the call was ignored. If the RNC turns a tin ear to the call this time, it will slide even faster toward becoming the incredibly shrinking party. Steele is the GOP's last and best hope that this doesn't happen.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).