He added that, even today, blacks "really don't have a reason" to vote for the GOP.
The remarks represented a frontal challenge to the party's preferred version of history, which has long denied that race-based appeals have played any role in the GOP's success in the south, at least in the post-Nixon age. And some defenders of that line are responding as you'd expect.
Among the Republicans with whom that comment didn't sit well was Michael Zak. He's made it his project to publicize what he sees as the GOP's history of support for racial integration -- and his mini-profiles of black Republicans, many from the 19th century, were a key part of the redesigned website launched last year by Steele's RNC.
Zak told TPMmuckraker in an email:
Among my difficulties with Chairman Steele's remarks is his implication that Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" was a cynical ploy that has endured for more than four decades, as if Nixon's decision to campaign extensively in the South -- the first time since Reconstruction for a Republican presidential candidate -- was some sort of sin for which the GOP should apologize. As the photo accompanying my article shows, Richard Nixon supported Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
Zak wasn't alone. One blogger at RedState wrote: "Steele's job is to make TODAY'S GOP attractive to voters, not to declare that we haven't pandered enough to any group."
And the conservative economist Bruce Bartlett told the Washington Post's Dave Weigel:
I think it's too bad that Steele gave Democrats reason to believe that their distorted vision of how Republicans came to dominate the South is correct. It may be his biggest gaffe so far.
We've been here before. In 2005, one of Steele's predecessors as RNC chair, Ken Mehlman, ventured that the GOP's past efforts to "benefit politically from racial polarization" were "wrong." Even that relatively relatively mild assessment prompted Rush Limbaugh to declare: "Republicans are going to go bend over and grab the ankles."
So perhaps it's no surprise to see the response to Steele. But it's clear that the chairman's willingness to question a key tenet of the GOP's self-conception isn't likely to do much good for his already shaky standing with the party.
Late Update: An RNC spokesman, asked by TPMmuckraker to respond to Zak's criticism of Steele, did not directly respond, instead saying via email:
Chairman Steele is 100% committed to engaging minority voters and continuing a dialogue on issues affecting their communities. Whether it has been the elimination of Opportunity Scholarships that give 1700 low-income minority students in our Nation's capital a chance to get ahead or proposed funding cuts to our Historically Black Colleges and Universities, it is clear than more and more minority voters are becoming disillusioned with the Obama Administration. They are speaking up - and the Republican Party is listening.