Republican National Chairman party chair Reince Priebus showcased the GOP’s minority outreach efforts on Wednesday with a luncheon hailing newly elected Reps. Mia Love of Utah, Will Hurd of Texas as well as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
“America is strongest when both parties fight to earn every vote,” Priebus said at the Howard Theatre in Washington. “No voter should be taken for granted, no vote should be overlooked.”
Priebus named minority outreach as a top priority when he took over the RNC, and his efforts have paid off when it comes to candidate recruitment. But it’s easier to find and elect promising black Republican candidates than to win black votes. Republicans barely managed to boost their percentage of the black vote from 6% in 2012 to 10% in 2014, despite a strong GOP environment. The question for 2016 and beyond is whether this new generation of leaders has a message that can chip away at Democrats’ dominant position.
So what was their message on Wednesday? Hurd talked about his work for the CIA in Pakistan helping to coordinate disaster relief. Scott joked about his academic struggles in school as a child and talked up the importance of expanding opportunity to more Americans. And then there was Love.
“We need to remove ourselves from a different kind of slavery,” Love said in her own speech on Wednesday. “What I’m talking about is a slavery that comes from being dependent on people in power.”
Rhetoric like this is common at conservative gatherings – a number of black Republicans, from Ben Carson to Allen West, employ similar metaphors of a Democratic “plantation” in which social programs are a type of “slavery.” Outside the GOP, African American critics complain these formulations are far more successful at reassuring white conservatives than winning converts in the black community.
Scott, for one, has notably avoided these terms. “That language doesn’t suit me,” he told The Washington Post last year. “It’s really hard to offend someone into changing their minds.”
This tension between listening to ultra-conservative black Republicans versus black voices outside the GOP camp has been an ongoing struggle. At the heart of it is whether Republicans need to change their policies to appeal to new groups or whether they just need to show up more to promote their existing platform.
“Instead of hosting luncheons, perhaps Republicans should join Democrats to actually fight for the issues that most affect Black families across the country: high quality education, affordable healthcare and livable wages for working families,” DNC spokesman Michael Tyler said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen the exact opposite from those hoping to lead their party in 2016.”
Nowhere is this tension between message and policy felt more than the fight over voting laws. Civil rights groups have accused state and national Republicans of a systematic effort in recent years to suppress black voters with ID laws and cuts to early voting that disproportionately affect minorities.
After being jeered at Howard University for a 2013 speech papering over conservatism’s difficult history on race, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul consulted with black leaders around the country and concluded the party’s quest to pile on new voter restrictions was derailing their outreach plans. Conservatives were not happy with the observation and Paul quickly softened his complaints. Since then, Republican presidential prospects and House leaders in Washington have shown little interest in fixing the Voting Rights Act after a 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidated a key section of the law, and state legislatures are set to pursue another round of voting restrictions.
Republicans could try to pick up where Paul left off and ask longtime Democratic voters in black communities whether the voting issue is obscuring their message on education or small business regulations. Or they could listen to longtime black Republican voters like Bishop E. Charles Connor, who participated in the RNC luncheon on Wednesday, and breathe easy.
“You name me how many blacks don’t have proper ID,” Connor told msnbc when asked about the issue. “How do they get welfare?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the last name of the DNC spokesman. Msnbc regrets the error.