Does the GOP have an opening with Black voters?

If Republicans look to suppress minority rights, appeal will be limited

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is among the most prominent Black conservatives in the modern Republican Party.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is among the most prominent Black conservatives in the modern Republican Party. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 21, 2021 at 6:30am

OPINION — “Republicans are now grinning from ear to ear at the thought of making inroads into the black political community.” That observation sounds as if it could have been written two months ago, after Donald Trump improved his performance among voters of color, particularly among Black men.

In fact, that sentence appeared almost 35 years ago, in a Jan. 24, 1986, Wall Street Journal op-ed piece (“Most Blacks Will Remain Democrats”) that I penned with new friend political analyst Charlie Cook.

Ever since I arrived in the nation’s capital to write about campaigns and elections for The Political Report, then published by the Free Congress Foundation, I have heard conservatives talking about making inroads among Black voters.

The arguments have always been the same, starting with the religiosity and cultural conservatism of Blacks and ending with the argument that Democrats have been taking Black voters for granted for decades.

The 2016 Trump campaign did try to reach out to Blacks — sort of.

He started with a less-than-compelling message in August 2016 at a Lansing, Michigan, campaign rally, when he asked Black voters to support him because “what the hell do you have to lose?”(Trump’s statement occurred the same day that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, resigned.)

Then, in his bid to win a second term, Trump wooed entertainer Kanye West and former football star Herschel Walker, promoted bloggers Diamond and Silk, positioned Black supporters where they needed to be at events to show off their presence, and overloaded the party’s national convention with speakers of color.

As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, “About 12 of the convention’s 93 speakers were Black, 13 percent of the total. That’s more than four times the density of Blacks in the party itself. For every three White women who spoke, one Black man spoke. In the party itself, White women outnumber Black men by 17 to 1.”

Given Trump’s reputation for intolerance, his comments after the Charlottesville march, and the defection of upscale suburban voters to the Democratic Party in 2018, GOP strategists obviously figured that they needed to reach out to Black voters — or at least Black men — to offset defections in 2020. (Reaching out to potential new supporters was never one of Trump’s great strengths.)

I expect Republicans to continue those efforts in the future. GOP strategists know the country is changing, so they will look for more minority candidates and more minority voters.

But it is important to remember that there have always been Black conservatives — first people like Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell, then Herman Cain and Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., and Ben Carson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and unsuccessful Michigan Senate hopeful John James.

The Republican problem is that since Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s states’ rights message and Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy empowered those who opposed civil rights, Black officeholders and grassroots supporters have constituted a fraction of the GOP.

To be sure, Republicans once did very well with Black voters. That 1986 op-ed piece I started with was sparked by strong showings by New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and Cleveland Mayor (and later governor and senator) George V. Voinovich, each of whom carried a majority of Black votes in their 1985 reelection races.

But state and local candidates and officeholders (especially those in executive positions) tend to be less ideological than federal officeholders; Kean was a liberal Republican and Voinovich a pragmatist, in those cases. Both ran in off-off-year elections, and both were uniquely suited to run on their successful records.

While Republicans were showing signs of moving to the right by the mid-1980s — North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond were in the conference, as was Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton — the GOP was still the party of Sens. Charles “Mac” Mathias of Maryland, Chuck Percy of Illinois, William Cohen of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, all pragmatic-to-liberal Republicans.

Since then, the GOP has moved dramatically to the right, while the Democrats have moved left. Those shifts make it much more difficult for Republicans to woo more Black voters.

While Black voters (like many white voters) care about abortion rights and issues involving religious freedom, they are at least equally concerned about health care, voting rights, police brutality and racism.

The federal government has protected the interests and rights of minorities more than many states have, especially in the South. Republican promises to Black voters will ring hollow as long as Southern GOP governors and state legislatures continue to make it harder for Blacks to vote and to improve their economic standing.

There will always be some in the minority community who, for a great variety of reasons, will respond to conservative themes or Republican appeals. But until the GOP is no longer in the hands of Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Rep. Mo Brooks and Trump, it will be difficult for the party to make substantial inroads among Black voters.

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