Can JC Watts Help GOP Win Black Voters?

The former congressman tells us of his "Insight" into how to help diversify his party.

Stacy Revere/Southcreek Global/Newscom
Stacy Revere/Southcreek Global/Newscom

(The Root) — Still reeling from its losses in the 2012 election, the Republican Party has begun doing some serious soul-searching. Increasingly that search has led party leaders on a quest to re-evaluate what the party stands for, who it speaks for and, lately, whether or not it needs a little more soul in it. After years of ceding black voters to Democrats, the Grand Old Party now appears ready to make a genuine investment in becoming more diverse.

Following the presidential election, a number of high-profile Republican voices have spoken publicly about the need for the party to  attract more Latinos and African Americans. Citing controversial, racially inflammatory comments by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and others, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “There’s also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities.” 

Powell is not alone in criticizing the party’s track record on diversity outreach. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is white, said in a postelection interview, “I think Republicans have done a pathetic job of reaching out to people of color. That’s something we’ve got to work on. It’s a group of people that frankly should be with us based on the real policy of conservatism. But Republicans have acted as if they can’t get the vote, so they don’t try. And the result is, they don’t get the vote.”

Proving Huckabee’s point, as noted in a previous column on The Root: “In 1996 Bob Dole won 21 percent of the Latino vote and 12 percent of the black vote. In 2000 George W. Bush won 8 percent of the black vote and 35 percent of the Latino vote. In 2004 George W. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote and 40 percent of the Latino vote. John McCain won 31 percent of the Latino vote and just 5 percent of the black vote. In 2012 Mitt Romney won 24 percent of the Latino vote and just 2 percent of the black vote.”

Signaling that the party is hoping to change those numbers, there was talk that former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. was in the running to become Republican National Committee chair, and he did confirm that he was being encouraged to pursue a bid. Watts would have followed Michael Steele to become the second black chair of the RNC. That did not come to fruition, but Watts is helping to steer a new initiative aimed at diversifying the GOP called Insight, which will officially launch on Feb. 27, 2013.

Bringing in Fresh Blood

In an exclusive interview with The Root, Watts described Insight’s mission as “Giving insight to the legislative process to assist in connecting the dots and establishing relationships with nontraditional constituencies.” Watts laughed when I asked him if it was true that his father, J.C. “Buddy” Watts Sr., once said that an “African American voting for a Republican is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders,” of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Calling his father a “witty guy,” Watts acknowledged that the anecdote is true. He went on to explain that although his father did vote for him — and once for President Richard Nixon — Buddy Watts did turn to even more partisan rhetoric during his own run for elective office as a Democrat.

Watts comes from a politically active family in Oklahoma. In addition to his father’s forays into politics, his uncle served as the state’s NAACP president for many years. This background is one of the reasons Watts said he feels a commitment to political activism as well as to diversity.