Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Something unprecedented is happening at the Republican National Committee, and it’s a huge blow to the GOP’s African-American-outreach programs.

The RNC is losing its black staffers. All of them.

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In the last six months, all four of the top black staff members at the RNC have left. These resignations have sparked every rumor from Donald Trump is running African Americans out of the party to the GOP has given up on the 2016 election. But the truth is a bit more complicated than the rumors, even though the final outcomes may ultimately be the same: The Republican Party is facing one of the most crucial elections in modern history, and the guiding voices within the party on African-American issues won’t be there to help. 

The Autopsy

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After losing the presidential election in 2012, the Republican Party released its “Growth and Opportunity Project,” which was popularly known as the GOP “autopsy.” The 2013 report acknowledged two things: First, that the Republican Party was doing great during midterm elections and consistently losing in general elections; and second, if the GOP did not expand its demographic base beyond white people and Southern states, it would never win another presidential election.

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To address this, it hired a group of young, dynamic and ambitious African-American Republicans who were tasked with not just changing the party’s image but also helping to foster candidates and policy on the ground for black voters.

In October 2013, the RNC hired Tara Wall, a former Mitt Romney media adviser, and Orlando Watson, a former Rand Paul staffer, and they were tasked specifically with reaching out to African-American media outlets to share the GOP message. The GOP later added Raffi Williams (son of Fox News political commentator Juan Williams) and Kristal Quarker Hartsfield, rounding out its African-American political A-team.

Given where the Republican Party was with black voters in 2012, the team was, by many accounts, successful. African-American turnout for Republican gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich, in Ohio, and Chris Christie, in New Jersey, increased in the 2014 midterms. Williams’ work got him named one of the 50 most beautiful by The Hill magazine in 2014. Quarker Hartsfield helped launch college Republican organizations at HBCUs across the country. And Wall and Watson became fixtures at the National Association of Black Journalists conventions, repairing years of frosty relations between black press outlets and the Republican Party. In fact, in many cases these four African-American RNC staffers were better-regarded than some of the media flacks in the Obama administration.

So What Happened?

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The Republican Party is facing its first major election since the Republican autopsy, a chance to see if any of the programs implemented over the last three years will actually work on the big stage. So why would everyone leave now? Most political resignations come after an election season. The entire black staff of the RNC leaving during an election is the political equivalent of spending three years working on an album and then backing out of the promotional tour at the last minute.

Individually, the staffers’ publicly stated reasons are legitimate. Wall left last November to concentrate on other projects, Watson left in March to go to graduate school, Williams left for a job in the private sector and Quarker Hartsfield will likely join the staff of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. But it’s obvious to outside observers and sources within the RNC that something is going on.

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First, the Republican Party seemed completely unprepared for these departures and “botched” the messaging, according to one insider. Rather than release a statement quelling rumors that this was a mass exodus, most party leadership has been mum on the issue. The silence from GOP leadership became so deafening that Williams took the initiative to give a statement to the Huffington Post to dispel any suggestion that his resignation was part of a larger staff shake-up.

“Race Insurance”

While no one will go on record, the sentiment from one Republican insider is that minority staffers are concerned that they will become “race insurance” for the Republican Party during a Trump presidential run, potentially ruining their political opportunities down the road.

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This is more about career than ideology; Trump has ruffled a lot of GOP feathers across the nation, and getting far away from him and a potentially ugly national campaign is a smart career move. This concern is especially felt in the Republican Latino-outreach program, where there is speculation that a similar exodus of talent is coming.

The other reason behind the departure of many of these staffers is party chair Reince Priebus. Priebus, after having been one of the longest-serving chairs in GOP history, has stated that he will not run to be the party’s leader again in 2017. That means that everyone who was hired by him, including the African-American-outreach team, might be out of a job, whether Republicans win the White House or not. One Republican insider familiar with the staff changes suggested that it’s the combination of things that have led to these moves: “If Trump weren’t the nominee or Reince wasn’t leaving, it would be different. But both?”

Last week the Republican Party announced that Telly Lovelace had been hired to do the jobs of both Watson and Quarker Hartsfield. He will assist Lucas Boyce (hired last fall to replace Wall) in trying to usher the Republican black-outreach program through this election season. But that’s still only two staffers to replace four, and some question whether they’ll have enough time to be effective this election season.  

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“Nothing is going to change,” says Raynard Jackson, a longtime African-American Republican consultant who was once Lovelace’s boss. “They [black GOP staffers] are in over their heads.”

Others suggested that Lovelace’s position is really just a “six-month job,” since he and Boyce will likely run minority outreach for the November election and will be replaced by the new party chair in early 2017. 

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In the end, the Republican Party is in a sad and precarious position. Trump has alienated and turned off African-American voters after Priebus spent years trying to court them. Caught in the middle were four African-American staffers who likely saw the writing on the wall and realized that one way or another, it was time to jump ship from the national Republican Party. Which is a shame because after this exodus, the GOP may be spending another 40 years wandering in the wilderness for black votes. 

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Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.