GOP Back to Square One

by Stuart Rothenberg May 1, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Republicans are back to square one with black voters. And they don’t have an aggressive plan to reach out again anytime soon.

As head of the Republican National Committee for the past two years, Ken Mehlman made a concerted and aggressive push to reach out to the black community. While his efforts did not result in immediate results at the ballot box, they served as a foundation to rebuilding credibility and trust between black voters and the GOP.

There was a time when black voters supported Republicans. It was Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans who freed the slaves, after all.

Even into the 1960s, the Democratic Party was home to Southern segregationists, and Democrats filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1966, Ed Brooke (R-Mass.) became the first black elected to the Senate after Reconstruction.

But the country was also on the verge of a seismic electoral shift. Barry Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, highlighting his opposition to the Civil Rights Act and attracting white conservatives in the South and West. At the same time, President Lyndon Johnson (D) supported the legislation, despite opposition from some elements of his party, changing the future image of the Democratic Party.

After a couple of decades, RNC Chairman Lee Atwater started talking about a “big tent party” and his desire to include moderates within the party once again. But for years following his death in 1991, black outreach at the RNC never consisted of much more than a token position.

From 1994 to 2002, then-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) was the face of black Republicans, although more than a dozen black GOPers have run for federal office over the past three cycles, all without success.

Some candidates, such as Jennifer Carroll (in Florida’s 3rd district), Clinton LeSueur (Mississippi’s 2nd), Winsome Sears (Virginia’s 3rd) and Myrah Kirkwood (Michigan’s 5th), ran in heavily Democratic districts and never really had much of a chance. Other candidate, such as Joe Rogers (Colorado’s 7th), Jackie Winters (Oregon’s 5th), Herman Cain (Georgia Senate), Keith Butler (Michigan Senate) and Winston Wilkinson (Utah’s 2nd), couldn’t get out of the Republican primary to have an opportunity to win a more competitive seat. Still other candidates, such as Vernon Robinson (North Carolina’s 5th and 13th) and Alan Keyes (Illinois Senate), are probably too marginalized to get elected anywhere.

In March 2001, President Bush’s strategist Matthew Dowd said that to win re-election, the president would have to improve his standing with minority voters. Bush received 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, up 2 points from 2000, and it wasn’t by accident. The Bush-Cheney campaign hired Robert Traynham, a high-level black staffer on Capitol Hill, as a senior adviser.

After helping Bush secure his second term, Mehlman moved from campaign manager to chairman of the RNC and continued the party’s outreach by visiting 17 black groups in the first half of 2005, culminating with a July 14 address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People national convention.

“It’s more than just words, and more than outreach. Republicans are committed to inclusion,” Mehlman told the NAACP. “Outreach is when you show up to ask for the vote four weeks before the election. I’m here four years before the next presidential election asking for your help.”

But a month later, the tenuous relationship between the Republican Party and the black community took a significant hit.

Hurricane “Katrina totally neutralized any ground that was made, if any,” according to GOP consultant Curt Anderson, who worked on the Maryland Senate campaign of then-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) in the previous cycle.

Bush tried to make amends with a speech of his own to the NAACP in July 2006.

“For too long my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party,” he said. “That history has prevented us from working together when we agree on great goals. That’s not good for our country.”

But it was the president’s dismal approval rating that contributed to the defeat of three prominent statewide black Republican candidates in 2006.

In Ohio, while Secretary of State Ken Blackwell survived a nasty primary, he faced anti-Republican trends at the state and national levels, as well as concerns that he was too polarizing. The end result was a 60 percent to 37 percent thumping by then-Rep. Ted Strickland (D). Blackwell received 20 percent of the black vote, 5 points better than Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who lost re-election, and 4 points better than Bush did in the Buckeye State in 2004.

In Pennsylvania, incumbent Gov. Ed Rendell (D) handily defeated former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, 60 percent to 40 percent. Swann received 13 percent of the black vote, 3 points less than Bush received in Pennsylvania in 2004 and only 3 points more than Sen. Rick Santorum (R) received in his losing effort.

And in Maryland, Steele lost his Senate bid, 54 percent to 44 percent, against then-Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D). Steele ran a good campaign under the circumstances and took 25 percent of the black vote. His former running mate, then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), received 15 percent of the black vote while losing re-election last year, and Bush took only 11 percent in Maryland in 2004.

Even in a “normal” election cycle, there is certainly no guarantee that Steele, Swann or Blackwell would have won. But, except for Steele, their inability to significantly improve their standing among black voters proves that the race of a candidate is secondary. Bush’s appointment of blacks to significant posts in his administration (including Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice) hasn’t done much to persuade black voters, either. And while many black voters line up with the Republican Party on conservative social issues, the two groups couldn’t be further apart culturally.

Republicans could have a handful of black candidates once again in 2008. Attorney Erwin Roberts is seriously considering a run in Kentucky’s 3rd district, and Swann has been asked to consider a run in Pennsylvania’s 4th. Both districts are represented by potentially vulnerable Democratic freshmen. Former Senate staffer Erik Underwood, 27, is an underdog in the June 19 special election in Georgia’s 10th district.

“We’re looking for good candidates everywhere,” said NRCC Political Director Terry Carmack. “If they are African-American, it’s a bonus.”

Just last week, the RNC appointed Shannon Reeves, past president of the Oakland NAACP, to head up its minority outreach. But the African-American Advisory Committee, founded under Mehlman, has yet to meet under the new RNC leadership.

“It becomes a question of consistency and commitment,” said Steele, who replaced Watts as chairman of GOPAC earlier this year. “My attitude is that [African-Americans] won’t vote for you, because you won’t bother.”

On a philosophical level, most Republican operatives do believe that outreach to the black community is a worthy cause. “Of course it doesn’t make sense right now,” according to one GOP operative in favor of an aggressive outreach effort. “It will take at least a generation, if not longer.” But still other Republicans are struggling with the lack of immediate results and are simultaneously enticed by Hispanic outreach that could yield a higher gain.

“The Republican Party will not be whole again until more African-Americans come back home,” Mehlman told the NAACP two years ago.

At the current pace, the GOP will be incomplete for some time. Republicans may benefit in the long term as the voting behavior of the black population evolves, but any increase in the black vote for Republicans will not be a result of any effort from the party.