Black Republicans: The RNC Gave Up on Us
The RNC pledged to make outreach to black voters a priority. But as staff dedicated to the effort quit, the committee has been slow to replace them.
Over the past few months, all the D.C. members of its black outreach team quit. And the committee only hired one person, a Republican communications consultant who is only committed through November, to take their place.
Black Republican leaders are miffed, and say the RNC hasn’t delivered on its commitment to invest in outreach to black voters.
Some say it’s part of a decades-long pattern in the GOP’s party leadership: lose races, promise to court black voters, not follow up on those promises, and lose races some more.
After getting walloped in the 2012 general election, the RNC commissioned a study—called the Growth and Opportunity Project and promptly nicknamed the RNC autopsy—to investigate how the party could do better with sectors of the population where it underperformed. One focus of the report was black voters.
“[T]he Republican Party must be committed to building a lasting relationship within the African American community year-round, based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring,” the report read.
In the time since then, the RNC built a small team of full-time black outreach staffers. But over the past few months, four high-level African-American staffers have left—three from the black outreach team and a fourth from the communications shop.
None of the staffers who resigned provided on-the-record comment about their decisions to move on. Turnover at party campaign committees is common, and losing four staffers isn’t inherently shocking.
That said, the exodus raised eyebrows because the staffers weren’t replaced; instead, the RNC brought on Telly Lovelace, who has said he will leave the committee after the election.
Leading black conservatives who spoke with The Daily Beast had nothing but good things to say about Lovelace—but added that he’s being expected to do the work of large team.
But the committee’s failure to re-staff its outreach team hasn’t inspired much confidence that the party as a whole will invest in courting black voters.
“Orlando Watson and Raffi Williams are two fine gentlemen,” said Ron Christie, a board member of the American Conservative Union, of two African-American staffers who recently left the RNC. “The fact that both of them are gone and that they were hired in the wake of recognition that we need to do better as a party is somewhat troubling to me.
“It does concern me,” he added.
Henry Childs, the president of the Black Republican Auxiliary for the Texas Republican Party, said he found the RNC’s shrinking black outreach staff deeply unfortunate.
“I was very disappointed in the execution on the black outreach,” he said. “I always look at the money. You’ll know when a campaign or a party is interested when they spend money on an effort, so I look at money and staffers, and as far as I’m concerned, they didn’t invest enough money and they did not hire enough staffers to get the job done.
“It’s cyclical that you hear that,” he added. “They’re going to do something different, they’re going to try to talk to blacks, women, young people. Every time we lose an election, we talk about what we’re going to do differently, then we don’t do it.”
And he doesn’t take heart from the fact that there’s one person doing full-time black outreach from RNC headquarters in D.C.
“It’s laughable,” he said. “It really is laughable. It is laughable.”
Childs said a serious black outreach effort would require at least one RNC staffer work on it full-time in each state.
Lovelace said the RNC has seven full-time black outreach staffers operating in different battleground states, including two in Ohio. And he said he is working to develop relationships between the RNC and media outlets with predominantly black audiences.
“There’s a whole demographic there that is kind of untapped, and we need to start going after their audience,” he said.
And he said the loss of the staffers didn’t mean the RNC had given up on the black vote.
“This is Chairman Priebus’s agenda, and Chairman Priebus is still here and we’re pushing forward,” he said.
Kirsten Kukowski, the communications director for the RNC, said the committee is working to direct convention funds to minority-owned businesses. The convention is in Cleveland, and 2010 census data shows that more than half of the city’s residents are black.
One of the event’s official florists is a minority-owned business, she noted, and said the RNC is trying to highlight minority-owned small businesses as it does publicity for the event.
That said, Sean Jackson, who heads the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, shared Childs’s concerns that the RNC’s tiny black outreach indicated it wasn’t making the necessary investments to reach out to black voters.
“The RNC does not have a vested interest in black America,” he said.
“I don’t say that in a malicious or degrading or vindictive manner, I don’t mean that at all,” he added. “It has been part of the norm—normal culture for so many years, of not engaging the black community, that that engagement continues to remain nonexist.”
Until the RNC is willing to make a number of hires and invest serious finances in reaching out to black voters, he added, nobody should take their overtures to the contrary seriously.
“Black outreach takes money just like outreach for any other community does,” Jackson said, “and of all of the funds and resources that are spent by the RNC, very few to minimal to nothing is spent in the black community.”
Nobody expects Republicans to do particularly well with black voters. But several gubernatorial candidates cracked double digits with them in 2014, including Chris Christie and John Kasich. George W. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, 2 percentage points better than he did in 2000. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, only won 6 percent of black votes in 2012. Ohio and Florida, both must-win swing states in presidential years, have sizable black populations, and increasing their support for Republicans by small margins could have an outsize impact.
Crystal Wright, a conservative communications consultant who worked with the RNC during 2012 to build a website to reach out to black voters (a project the committee eventually scuttled), said she thinks the committee’s outreach efforts have never been serious.
“People go over there, they’re used as props, and the RNC—they’re not committed to any kind of outreach,” she said, referring to African-American staffers. “Trump and Paul Ryan are doing more to talk with black voters than the RNC ever will, in my opinion.
“There’s just no seriousness coming out of the RNC to grow the Republican Party tent beyond white voters,” she added.
But Leah Wright Rigueur, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who studies the relationship between African-American voters and the GOP, said the party has a long-term habit of planning to reach out to black voters and then not following through. The fact that Lovelace is on his own at RNC headquarters, she added, indicates that things may not have changed in a substantial way.
“The task in front of him is monumental,” she said. “There is absolutely no way that one person can do it.
“In almost every presidential election since 1964, Republicans know what they have to do in order to get black voters but they are unwilling to do it,” she added.
As presidential elections near, she added, the party shifts its focus from outreach to African Americans and other people of color to increasing turnout among its white rural and suburban base voters.
“The idea of either continuing that outreach or doing very strong targeted outreach is cast aside because their fear is that it will alienate the base of the party, the people who consistently vote,” she said.
In 2012, for instance, then-vice presidential contender Paul Ryan wanted to campaign in inner cities, pitching predominantly black communities on conservative policies. But the Romney team vetoed his idea—and went on to do abysmally with black voters.
Every time Republicans promise to reach out to black voters but fail to follow through, Rigueur added, it makes their next effort event harder.
“While Republican politicians may not remember, minority voters do remember,” she said. “They say, ‘This is just like last time.’”