(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.
"It's not enough to say we've got Tim Scott as a U.S. senator or Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state or T.W. Shannon as the first black speaker of the House in Oklahoma who's also a Republican, or J.C. Watts. I think that so cheapens the accomplishments of all of those people when we point to them and then don't put the infrastructure to connect the dots in the trenches," Watts said. He continued, "I was asked about the lack of diversity in the GOP leadership recently on a TV show, and I said, 'You won't have diversity in the leadership until we get diversity in the trenches, and that's part of Insight's mission."
As Watts explained it, in addition to helping to provide education and legislative action on issues of importance to minority communities, such as societal re-entry for former prisoners, Insight will serve as a recruitment pipeline for young people of color who are strong candidates for public service and government. The organization, which is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, will help connect them with Senate and congressional offices, thus diversifying the internship and staff pools of Republican officeholders and creating a pathway to more diverse leadership in the future.
"Diversity, tolerance and outreach: To me they are not liberal code words for big government, but too many Republicans think that," he said. Watts acknowledged that there have been institutional barriers that make it tough for those who are not children of privilege to get into politics, regardless of party, and his organization is hoping to change that.
Changing a Toxic Political Tone
When asked whether Powell is correct that racist comments by prominent Republicans and the perception that the party is racist are the real barriers to the GOP enjoying more diverse support, Watts replied, "When Colin Powell said what he said, whether [or not] I agreed with what he said and whether the party did, we need to listen." He also shared his own experiences with racial intolerance.
"When my name was floated for the RNC chairmanship a few months ago, there were some in the party who said, 'We've been there, done that with a black chairman.' That tells me that we've got some people who are out of touch." But he added that this is not a party-specific problem but a problem with politics today in general. "Many of the things that have happened to President Obama happened to me." Watts said that a Democratic opponent once used a photo of Watts from his youth with an Afro, asking voters, "Is this who you want representing you?"
"It's going to take decent people on both sides to get beyond that," he said. Watts pointed to the Birther issue as part of this toxic tone shaping politics and said emphatically to those still pushing it, "Let it go!"
"Black people don't think alike. Black people just vote alike, and we have to ask ourselves why so many black people on [issues like] taxes or choice and education agree with [Republicans] but don't vote with us. We have to ask ourselves why," Watts concluded. "It's about relationships."
Watts is not the only black Republican hoping to send a message to other people of color that the Grand Old Party may be just the party for them. Former presidential candidate and pizza baron Herman Cain just joined Fox News as a contributor, a platform that will make him one of the highest-profile conservatives in the nation. Cain previously blamed the advantage that Democrats enjoy among black voters on African Americans having been "brainwashed." But he later added that he believed one-third to 50 percent of black voters were "open-minded" enough to consider becoming Republicans.
"I meet them every day. They stop me in the airport," Cain said. "And so this whole notion that all black Americans are necessarily going to stay and vote Democrat and vote for Obama, that's simply not true. More and more black Americans are thinking for themselves. And that's a good thing." It remains to be seen, however, if his new role at the network will result in converts who believe that the Republican Party is still the party of Lincoln and not the party of Limbaugh.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.