But Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, followed to the letter the party’s 2013 call to reform its approach, working hard over the past three years to reach out to “non-traditional” Republican voters who’d overwhelmingly rejected Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.
Frost and his colleagues spent time in African-American churches and college campuses. They were sponsors of the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. They stripped discriminatory language about the LGBT communities out of the county party platform and honed an inclusive, economic-focused message instead.
As the local hosts of the Republican Convention, Frost and fellow GOPers want to show that Cleveland Republicans are inclusive and welcoming and, they say, the approach was actually working. Until the 2016 election started to gear up.
“It will present a challenge,” Frost said of Donald Trump’s new perch as the presumptive Republican nominee. “We know what happened with Romney, we read the autopsy, we know what we needed to do—we’ve got to win over non-traditional Republicans and minorities.
“The thing with Donald Trump, he presents an opportunity with non-traditional Republicans but a great challenge when it comes to minorities.”
“I just think in Cuyahoga County, we just don’t do crazy,” said Claude Booker, an African-American Republican from nearby Summit County.
Booker, a South Carolina native and a lifelong Democrat who moved to the Cleveland area in November 2001, said he was initially skeptical of the outreach effort.
“I had the same vibe and cautiousness that most African Americans have in regards to the Republican Party. [I thought] they haven’t really had an open dialogue where anyone was courageous enough to talk about it because they didn’t want to offend black folks.
“But you know, Rob was different,” he said.
Booker said he first met Frost when the chairman showed up at his predominantly African-American church with a candidate to campaign. After they spoke, Frost convinced Booker to attend a local Republican meeting.
“I was nervous. I thought, ‘Urgh, Republicans don’t like black people,’ but I went and it was totally, totally cool,” he said.
Soon Booker was bringing friends to GOP events and inviting them to the Lincoln Day dinner. He campaigned vigorously for Gov. John Kasich’s 2014 re-election bid—telling his friends to look at the candidates rather than voting Democrat out of habit. They did.
“It was amazing, people started walking up to me and saying, ‘Booker, I voted for your guy!’” he said. “They were saying, ‘I like your dude.’”
Kasich not only won Cuyahoga County, he even won 26 percent of the black vote.
Nearly two years later, the tone is different.
“I can’t stop the negative calls,” he said. “I’m not defending [Trump’s] I’m just trying to tell [friends], it’s not the values that we got in Cuyahoga County.”
He said his friends answered, “Well, Booker, we can say we know one good Republican.”
“I just don’t understand the dialogue, as it pertains to the Hispanic community, as well as the perception that African Americans have” of Trump,” he said. “Because I can’t find one that is favorable. “
Scott Ashley, a member of the Cuyahoga County GOP, worked the Republican booth at the gay games in 2014.
He said they received “shocked looks” when people walked by and saw the large banner announcing “Cuyahoga County Republicans Welcome You To Cleveland.”
“People were engaged, wanting to have conversations, were surprised to see us there,” he said.
“The Republican Party was founded on personal responsibility and individual rights.That’s what the local party is focused on.”
Ashley, who spoke to The Daily Beast prior to Sen. Ted Cruz’s exit from the race, said he was “disappointed” both Cruz and Trump continued to raise social issues rather than focusing on the vast swath of issues on which many Republicans (as well as independents and, yes, Democrats) can agree.
“My issue now is, I feel like candidates that are racing toward that nomination are using some of those social issues to divide us instead of focusing on things that we all agree on,” he said. “We focus on the things that divide us instead of unite us, I get disappointed, I get discouraged.”
Deb Donley, who has headed up the county’s outreach to young Republicans, said she was hoping that the message will become more economically focused as the primary fades away.
“Get off the talking points, get off the rhetoric and start to stand for something,” she said.
Asked what she tells young people who are wavering on the Republican Party after the chaos of the primary election, she said, “Patience.”
“I’m not giving up hope, I’m a very hopeful person, I think we need to have a little more patience and get beyond this nasty phase for both parties in the campaign,” she said. “It’s not pretty.”