To Win With Black Voters, GOP Can’t Just Preach to the Choir

Republicans want African-American votes, but they’re still figuring out how to win them.

David Swerdlick/The Root

Entering the elegantly restored Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, you could hear the reverberating gospel sound of “Lift Every Voice”—sung by Patrick Lundy & the Ministers of Music—flowing out of the lobby, and see a steady stream of African-American guests flowing in.

They were there for a luncheon and, yes, the music, but unlike a lot of other Black History Month events, nearly all of the attendees were … Republicans.

It’s not the kind of scene you see every day.

But they were there for the Republican National Committee’s second annual Trailblazer Award event, honoring black Republicans, which is part of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’ wider initiative to change perceptions within and beyond the broader black community. And whether you see his efforts as a sincere attempt to narrow the trust deficit with voters of color or you see them mostly as window dressing, what comes across, at least, is that Priebus wants his party to look the part.

And the party—including Priebus—did look the part.

In opening remarks, he touted the recent chartering of a College Republicans chapter at historically black Morehouse College. He recapped the opening, in November, of the GOP’s African-American outreach office in Detroit, a city that’s more than 80 percent African American.

At one point during the program, while introducing honoree Dr. Louis Sullivan—secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush—Priebus noted that Sullivan was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and after the requisite “A-Phi!” shout-outs were heard in the audience, Priebus quickly deadpanned that he “knew that was coming … I’m getting used to this”—an acknowledgment of his more frequent engagement with black leaders and institutions.

What Priebus doesn’t have is a clear route to reversing Mitt Romney’s poor tally of 6 percent of black votes, 27 percent of Latino votes and 26 percent of Asian-American votes in the 2012 presidential election.

Priebus talked about “school choice for inner-city kids”—one of the relatively few GOP issues that resonate broadly with black voters—but there was no talk of specific policy proposals on issues related to health care, criminal justice, civil rights, taxation and the social safety net. And those are issues where, despite outreach efforts, the black electorate parts ways with Republicans.

And though they were mostly out of sight at Tuesday’s event, Priebus has no control over GOP members of Congress like Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, whose immediate reaction to President Barack Obama’s very mainstream State of the Union address last week was to tweet that, to his ears, it sounded “like dictates from a King.”