This week, a group of African-American Democrats from Prince George's County, Md., endorsed Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a fellow black, for the U.S. Senate. It might be the most important political development in the country this week.

Control of the Senate appears to hinge on the results in one or two contests. There are no states in which Republicans have appeared likely to pick up a seat, although New Jersey remains a possibility.

If Steele could manage an upset in the race for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, it could be the difference-maker. And Steele is undeniably close. The current RealClearPolitics poll average shows him trailing by 5.3 percentage points, and, in the words of University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, the endorsements are "going to go through the black community like a rocket. It's going to be the talk of the county, the state, maybe even the nation."

Tipping the balance in the Senate is only one of the two reasons Steele's campaign is the most important in the country this year, but before we look at the other reason, let's discuss the importance of the endorsements.

Prince George's County is a huge, majority-black area east of Washington, D.C. With a total population of just under 850,000, it's the second-largest jurisdiction in the state, with some 225,000 more people than the city of Baltimore. As you would expect given its ethnic makeup, it's a Democratic stronghold. In 2002, the ticket of Governor Bob Ehrlich and Steele won statewide by 4 percentage points, 52-48, but lost in Prince George's by 53 percentage points, 76-23.

So why would a high-powered leadership group from Prince George's break ranks with their party and support Steele? Part of it is that Steele is a Prince Georgian. The county leaders know him, like him and respect him. But that alone wouldn't be nearly enough to cause them to break ranks with their party in a critical election.

What it's really all about is that blacks in Maryland have begun to realize that they've been snookered by the white-dominated Democratic Party all these years. As Riddick put it, "They've been showing us a pie, but we never get a slice."

Voting statistics aren't kept by race, of course; they call it a "secret ballot" after all. But if you work out the math, you can pretty easily demonstrate that something like half of all Maryland Democratic voters are black. Half!

What have Maryland blacks gotten for their loyalty to the party? Virtually nothing. Oh, sure, they get representatives to legislative offices in districts where they have the overwhelming majority. Occasionally they get to be mayor of Baltimore — although the current mayor is white, and running for governor, something no black mayor could even seriously consider.

Indeed, in the entire history of the state of Maryland, exactly one person of African-American heritage has been elected to any statewide office. His name is Michael Steele.

If the state were a corporation, it'd be hauled up before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And remember, in most years nomination by the Democrats is tantamount to election. Ehrlich is only the second Republican governor of Maryland.

If there's racism, including a past pattern of racism, it falls entirely on the Democratic doorstep. And the trend hasn't stopped; Steele's white opponent, Rep. Ben Cardin, is white, and virtually the entire Democratic establishment in the state backed him in his successful primary race against former Rep. Kweisi Mfume. Blacks were told, in effect, not yet, and many of them are understandably asking, "How long, O Lord, how long?"

Because Maryland has such a large black population, at 29.1 percent almost two and a half times the national average of 12.4 percent, the fact that blacks have been shut out of real leadership in the party is particularly egregious. But it's true throughout the country.

That's the other reason Steele's election is so critical, to Republicans and black voters. In the entire history of the United States, only five African Americans have served in the Senate: three Republicans and two Democrats. And in these post-civil rights times, it is only fitting to ask why the party for whose candidates 90 percent of black voters regularly cast their ballots has not done better. Indeed, if you believe in affirmative action, as Democrats say they do, then there should be ten or eleven black Democratic senators at any given time these days. Whereas in fact there has never been more than one.

Michael Steele's election as lieutenant governor of Maryland served to awaken black voters in that state to the fact that they were second-class citizens within their own party, and many of them are determined to send the party a message by voting for Steele this year. If he gets something like 25 percent of the black vote, he will probably win, and some polls showed him with that many even before the endorsement by Curry, et. al.

The awakening that followed Steele's election four years ago in Maryland will become national if he becomes a United States senator.