REPUBLICANS AND RACE…. More than three years ago, at the annual meeting of the NAACP, then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman made an appearance and made an interesting acknowledgement: it was a mistake for his party to exploit racism for partisan gain. Mehlman conceded that Republicans, for decades, tried to “benefit politically from racial polarization,” adding, “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

The speech was supposed to signify a new beginning with regards to the Republican Party and race. It wasn’t. In fact, recent events suggest the party is slipping backwards.

As minority voters abandoned the GOP in droves this past cycle, those who will vote on the next chairman of the Republican Party are struggling with the difficult issue of race.

The Democrats are seen as having advantages: Traditionally they have won more minority voters, and now the party will be led by the first African-American president. And, for Republicans, race proves to be a particularly thorny issue that can cause problems for even the most adept political operators.

Chip Saltsman and “Barack the Magic Negro” is obviously the most notable recent example, compounded by the fact that Saltsman’s RNC candidacy benefited from the flap.

But Saltsman’s controversy is hardly an isolated incident. Another rival for the RNC chairmanship, South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, was recently exposed as the former member of a country club that prohibited African-American membership.

During the 2008 campaign, the GOP didn’t shy away from the politics of racial polarization, either. You’ll recall, for example, Republican congressman referring to Barack Obama as “uppity” and “boy.” The Ashley Todd hoax was obviously premised on race. And remember “Obama Bucks“?

Even during the Republican primaries, long before Obama was the Democratic nominee, GOP candidates participated in a wide variety of debates and forums, but the top-tier candidates refused to show up for some minority-sponsored events, including a debate in Baltimore focused specifically on the concerns of the African-American community.

The point isn’t that the Republican Party, in the 21st century, is still “struggling with the difficult issue of race,” it’s that the party is still losing this struggle.

What’s more, this is a problem with widespread implications. Paul Krugman argued this morning that the GOP decided decades ago “to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party’s champion, to the Bush administration’s pervasive incompetence, to the party’s shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.”

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.