On the morning of March 27, Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at the prominent African-American magazine Ebony, was snarking on Twitter about a new publication aimed at black conservatives, when a young Republican National Committee staffer named Raffi Williams decided to challenge her, tweeting that he was disappointed she seemed averse to “diversity of thought.”
Lemieux responded to the criticism sharply:
Her reply was both combative and inaccurate — Williams, she would soon learn, is in fact black — and it set off a brief Twitter tussle, with followers crowding around the spectacle and cheering on their respective sides as the two exchanged barbs.
The exchange likely would have been forgotten by lunchtime, but the operatives at the RNC’s headquarters in Washington saw an opportunity. The next morning, party Chairman Reince Priebus released a letter calling on Ebony to apologize for its editor’s behavior and expressing a hope that “we can use this unfortunate episode as a catalyst for greater engagement and understanding between the Republican Party and the black community.” Within hours, the magazine relented and the RNC notched another victory over the liberal media. But to what end?
RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer later said their decision to escalate the flap with Ebony was meant to show black voters that Republicans took their votes seriously. “This was not meant to be provocative,” Spicer told BuzzFeed. “What this was really about was letting the readers of a very prominent African-American magazine know the Republican Party is fighting for their vote.” The message may have been lost in translation: In the days immediately following Ebony’s apology, more than 20,000 tweets were posted by Lemieux’s supporters carrying the hashtag #StandWithJamilah.
In the wake of the GOP’s bruising 2012 defeat, Republicans universally agreed that their party needed to find a way to appeal to people of color, or else face political extinction. But they didn’t agree on how to get it done. The result of this party-wide epiphany has been a confused jumble of outreach messages, with high-profile politicians, official party committees, activist groups, and media figures tripping over one another as they pursue their own strategies — and send mixed signals to minority groups in the process. Turn on the TV and you’ll see Sen. Rand Paul decrying the social injustice of the war on drugs, but change the channel and black Tea Party hero Ben Carson is calling Obamacare the worst thing since slavery. Open a newspaper and read about the RNC’s unprecedented efforts to reach minority voters in the midterms, but flip the page and red-state legislatures are trying to pass voter ID laws that would depress turnout among those same voters.
Of course, no political party — with its constellation of constituencies and outsize personalities jockeying for position — ever marches entirely in lockstep. But at a time when the party is spending millions of dollars building an infrastructure to facilitate outreach, many Republicans wish they could present a more cohesive message to minority voters.
After announcing early in 2013 that the party would spend $10 million on an ambitious minority engagement initiative, the RNC has hired at least 42 black and Latino field representatives, spreading them across the country in key states with the mandate to lay a permanent groundwork for future Republican candidates. They have recruited local surrogates, identified sympathetic business organizations and churches, and organized grassroots voter contacting. At the national level, Priebus has spoken at black colleges and given interviews to minority media outlets, preaching a gospel of inclusion and diversity.
At the same time, the RNC has continued its strategy of picking fights with liberal institutions over racial issues. When MSNBC tweeted a crack earlier this year about how “the rightwing” would hate a commercial featuring a biracial family, Priebus announced that the RNC would boycott the network until they apologized. By the end of the day, MSNBC’s CEO had fired the staffer responsible for the tweet, and asked the party for its forgiveness. The RNC also repeatedly called out MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry after guests on her show made fun of a Romney family photo featuring Mitt’s black adopted grandson.
Spicer said part of the purpose of all this goading is to illustrate how the political biases of community gatekeepers often prevent Republicans from reaching voters of color.
“If you open certain publications, you might say, ‘I never see anything about Republicans,’” Spicer said. “Well, in a lot of cases, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s because they don’t want to highlight the work we’re doing. The ultimate win for us is that we create a dialogue where readers of that publication see more conservative thought and opinion and ideas and understand how many people in their community share those ideas.”
RNC officials stress that they’re investing in a long-term strategy and that the results won’t always be immediately visible, but they do have one favorite statistic they like to pass along to reporters: From January 2013 to January 2014, the Republican Party’s favorability among black voters increased from 12% to 16%, according to a Wall Street Journal–NBC poll.
Meanwhile, Rand Paul has taken a somewhat different tack in engaging with the black community. The Kentucky senator, whose libertarian following allows him more latitude in defying traditional GOP orthodoxy, has been an outspoken advocate for softening drug laws, reforming the criminal justice system, and creating major tax breaks for areas in financial distress, like Detroit. He has also given high-profile speeches at black colleges.
Rather than seek out strategic fights with liberal black institutions to make a point, Paul’s aides say he tries to get their input and look for areas where they can align. To help do that, he has enlisted Elroy Sailor, an influential Republican lobbyist and strategist, to set up roundtable conversations with black community leaders and business owners — most of them Democrats — in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston.
Sailor said Paul has plans to meet with the NAACP and the National Urban League in coming months.
The key difference between Paul’s strategy and that of other Republicans, Sailor said, is that he isn’t approaching the process of engaging with black leaders as “outreach.”
“I just think ‘outreach’ is a term for consultants,” said Sailor. “It’s a good term for politics. Outreach is ‘OK, well, we got six black people today, and we want to get 12 black people next week.’ It’s a numbers game.”
He added, “Do you need the symbolism? Yes. Do you need to do the party to honor Black History Month? Do you need to respond when someone says something that is not in the best interest of one your minority constituencies? Do you need to do the Hispanic Heritage Month luncheon? Yes, of course. But if that’s all you’re doing, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’ve got to focus on solutions.”
Paul’s approach has not been without missteps. He has expressed concern about how the Civil Rights Act curtails property rights. He has made his own problematic Obamacare–slavery comparisons, a favorite Republican blunder. And when he made news earlier this month by urging his party to lay off its voter ID crusade, he was forced to walk it back days later. But there are signs that he’s building goodwill among people of color: A poll released Saturday showed 29% of black voters in Kentucky would favor Paul over Hillary Clinton in a 2016 matchup. Such an outcome would represent the best showing of any Republican presidential candidate in decades.
“If he runs in 2016, you might not see a lot of African-Americans switching over to becoming Republicans, but I think what you’re going to see is a lot of Paul Democrats,” said Sailor.
Not everyone is so sure. Greg Carr, chair of Howard University’s Afro-American studies department, credited Paul for giving a speech on his campus last year, but said he has a long way to go before he succeeds in changing students’ minds about the GOP. “A lot of them were asking, ‘Is this the Republican Party of Frederick Douglass or Ronald Reagan?’” he said.
Carr was also skeptical of the RNC’s claim that their dustups with black media were meant to appeal to black voters.
“As with any American political party apparatus, the RNC is in the business of winning elections and advancing their political agenda,” Carr said. “I think asking Ebony magazine or a black host on MSNBC to apologize would resonate with their party base long before it would do anything other than reinforce their image as a party hostile to non-whites.”
If the party’s goal really is to attract minority voters, Carr said, Republicans would do well to aim their umbrage at right-wing provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh for “their consistent questioning of President Obama’s bona fides as an American.” Indeed, the GOP has had an uneven record in tamping down its bigot eruptions. Even after Donald Trump spent months trumpeting his birther conspiracy theories, Republican presidential candidates still lined up to kiss his ring and beg for his endorsement in 2012. And earlier this year, when Ted Nugent called Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” Sen. Ted Cruz defended the conservative rock star’s record of championing the Second Amendment, while gently distancing himself from the uncouth remarks. (Paul, by contrast, blasted Nugent.)
Ron Christie, a black Republican strategist and Fox News contributor, said that even if Republicans haven’t landed on a unified message, people of color recognize the party is taking an interest in their vote for the first time in many years.
“I will tell you, from my television work, I have noticed in people of color who have stopped me on the street in recent months have said, ‘You know, I still don’t agree with you guys but you’re really trying to get black voters to listen to you,’” Christie said. “The biggest mistake the party could make now is to say, ‘We increased our number of black votes from 7% to 10% and now we’re done! Mission accomplished.’”
He added, “To use the old adage, actions speak louder than words. What we have done now is created an environment where people of color are willing to listen. Do we squander it by taking folks for granted or writing them off?”