12.06.12

J.C. Watts: Romney, Priebus and the GOP Fail to Connect to African-Americans

After two major national election failures, it’s time for some diversity and change in the Republican Party, says former congressman J.C. Watts. It may be time for a run at the RNC, he tells Lloyd Grove

J. C. Watts sounds fired up—but not necessarily ready to go.

“I think by any fair and reasonable standard, given the money that we as Republicans have spent, it’s the worst return on investment in any election cycle in the history of the United States of America,” says the former congressman from Oklahoma, who in recent days has been flirting very publicly with a possible challenge to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “I would seriously consider it, but I’m not so sure the party wants it. I’ve got to be convinced that they want change,” he says. “In business and in politics, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

The 55-year-old Watts, a star quarterback during his college days for the Oklahoma Sooners, is a rare black Republican who served four terms in House, rose to a top leadership position, and then abruptly retired in 2003 to make money as a Washington lobbyist, consultant and business investor. He reentered the national spotlight during the 2012 campaign to spin for his old friend Newt Gingrich, who as Speaker of the House had nurtured Watts’s career, and lately has been arguing that Priebus, Mitt Romney, and the GOP in general have done a terrible job reaching out to African Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, single mothers, and other potential supporters who happen not to be part of the shrinking demographic of aging white men.

“I think every single Republican should be concerned,” Watts says. “And I think for every single Republican, it’s not a time when we’re going to abandon the party, but it is a time to say the party’s got some tough decisions to make. We can’t keep relying on tired old models. After Obama was elected, I had a guy tell me, ‘If they turn out the black vote, we’ll just turn out more white votes.’ How silly is that?”

Watts is especially critical of Romney and his campaign team, who made little effort to recruit African Americans to the inner circle, he argues, and suffered the consequences.

“I never was crazy about Romney as a candidate even in ’08, because you look at the candidate’s organization and they had no people that looked like me,” Watts says. “They did have somebody running African American coalitions for Romney—which is insulting. That was nothing but window dressing. There was no substance behind it. Newt was much better. You bet he was much better. But this isn’t about Newt Gingrich.”

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Former Congressman J.C. Watts addresses the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, on April 8, 2010. (Bill Haber / AP Photo)
Watts is especially critical of Romney and his campaign team, who made little effort to recruit African Americans to the inner circle.

Watts says he wasn’t surprised recently when Speaker of the House John Boehner—the man he ousted as House Republican Conference Chairman back in 1998 when the membership considered Boehner too squishy-moderate—announced a roster of committee chairmen that was entirely populated (except for a lone white woman) by pasty, middle-aged white guys.

“The fact is, you’re not going to create diversity in the committee chairs if you don’t create diversity in the grass roots,” he says. “You don’t get a crop unless you plant a seed. Basically, you got to choose from what you have.”

Watts, who has been pushing the party apparatus to recruit minorities for the past two decades with limited success, is not the first prominent Republican to voice these concerns—Karl Rove and Haley Barbour, among others, have made similar arguments in recent weeks—but he’s the first critic who could conceivably  take over the RNC. He says he started considering his options three weeks ago after receiving a letter from “a trusted friend,” and will make a decision in the next week or so.

“It was a three-page letter encouraging me to run for the RNC and telling me why I should run,” he says. “I thought about it for six or seven minutes and then went on about my business. Since then, it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Not, of course, without a great deal of help from Watts himself, who has been basking in the media glare—and clearly enjoying the attention—since he happily ruminated about the job to Politico this past Sunday. Initially, Watts was reluctant to directly attack Priebus, who after the 2010 cycle defeated Michael Steele, the RNC’s first-ever black chairman, and is comfortably positioned by most accounts to win reelection next month;  but lately, Watts has been telling anyone who’ll listen that Priebus ought to be fired.

“We got our heads handed to us twice now in national elections,” Watts says. “If you lose the championship game once, let alone twice, everybody is pointing fingers and the coach doesn’t stay on…We as a nation are getting more brown, and we as a party are totally unengaged with those constituencies. Even if I was running for the Republican National Committee chair, it’s really not about me. I’ve seen it written that J.C. Watts could help with minorities. But it’s not about having a black in that chair or a Hispanic in that chair or a female or an Asian. It’s about having somebody in that chair who will ‘get it.’ ” Priebus, he argues, demonstrably doesn’t.

Michael Steele, who has been openly contemptuous of Priebus (about whom he remains bitter for opposing and beating him two years ago from his position as the RNC’s general counsel), took to Twitter on Wednesday to blast the Republican establishment regarding its dismissive attitude toward Watts. “The half-wit shut-ins speak: J.C. Watts as RNC Chairman? Republicans say no way,” Steele tweeted, and linked to a news story in which members of the RNC laughed off Watts’s prospects. 

“If you go back and look over my career,” Watts says, citing Steele’s insults, “you’ll see that I’ve stayed away from that kind of language. But nevertheless I think Michael has seen up close and personal how you can get in that chair and you can get your legs chopped out from under you. He’s got some personal experience.”