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

David Swerdlick/The Root
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.”


Priebus surely already knows this, but until the GOP can get away from that footing—blanket opposition to, and disprespect for, Obama—they won’t get much traction from voters of color.

What he does seem to have is a greater sense of urgency. When he sat down with black journalists before the event, he followed up an old talking point—that the GOP has to “figure out how to grow our party”—with a new pledge to “fight for the African-American vote” and said—in sales terms—that if they don’t “ask for the order,” Republicans can’t expect to “make the sale.”


The issue, then, is what the GOP is selling. Priebus stuck up for Republican-backed voting restrictions, and cited Georgia's laws as a positive example, even though they're readying in that state to cut back on early voting. He took the high road when asked about the Affordable Care Act, saying that although it “has been a disaster in its rollout,” he and other Republicans “understand the concept” of greater access and affordability in health care coverage.

But that’s their dilemma. Obamacare is, in essence, an expanded version of Romneycare—the Massachusetts coverage program that Republicans favored when it was Romney’s plan, and then turned against after it was adopted by Obama.


That’s baked into the political cake at this point, and it’s a sticking point for the GOP with black voters, who favor the ACA and still give Obama an 84 percent approval rating.

Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams, who keynoted the event, sounded a familiar theme when he said that “the first step is showing up” if the GOP really wants to win African-American votes. But when he was asked where Republicans stand now in terms of reaching the black electorate, as opposed to a few years ago, he candidly assessed that they were “probably in the same spot.”


They’re clear, now, about the need to compete for black votes.

But they’re still a ways off from making the sale.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter