WASHINGTON — A website showcasing the achievements of black people in the Republican Party to attract the black vote before the 2012 presidential election was ready to go until the RNC pulled the plug on the project at the last minute, two sources tell BuzzFeed News.
According to tax documents obtained by the BuzzFeed News, the RNC spent $14,000 on production, but the site never launched. Crystal Wright, the political strategist who created the campaign, said she was told that the RNC cooled on the idea, which had been in the works since late 2011. RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer, in a meeting with Mike Vallante, chief of staff to RNC co-chair Sharon Day, and then-coalitions director Tom Kise, threw cold water on the website idea, according to Wright.
"I was told by the co-chair's office the leadership at the RNC said it didn't want to launch a black outreach website without activities to support it," Wright said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "In August of 2012, the site was basically finished. I worked with the co-chair's office to draft a memo of several initiatives to easily roll out but the RNC said it didn't have money to fund it."
Reached for comment, Spicer declined to answer questions. "You can quote me on this: I think it's embarrassing that you're writing this story," said Spicer, who added that the GOP's decision was a small-scale call about how to organize its digital content: The party built a newly integrated site with content targeted toward black voters and other constituency groups, rather than a splintered network of sites.
The party continues to work on wooing black voters. The RNC held its third Trailblazer Awards earlier this month. The event, which doubled as something of a Black History Month program, featured musical selections by a gospel choir, a chicken lunch, and appearances by RNC chair Reince Priebus and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, among others.
But reaching black Americans remains a singular challenge even as Republicans struggle for a range of minority votes. In 2014, the RNC released its Growth and Opportunity Project, which exposed the severity of the Republican National Committee's shortcomings on diversity last year. President Obama carried the overwhelming majority of the black vote in 2012, just as he did in 2008. In the last few years, one Republican in particular, Gov. Chris Christie, has been praised for securing a sizable portion of the black vote in his state — 21%. Still, presidential contenders like Sen. Rand Paul have emphasized that the lack of effort in targeting and talking to black voters must be changed at the very least.
Republicans had tried to do just that in 2012.
The site was the brainchild of former Florida Rep. Allen West, who wanted to begin to speak to black voters about the Republican Party beyond "outreach" months before an election. Allen's opinions on how to reach black voters held weight, especially with RNC co-chair Sharon Day.
West declined an interview through a spokesperson.
But with West pushing the idea from the outside, Wright and the RNC finalized the contract in October of 2011.
Black Republicans who wanted to participate in the website were summoned to the RNC on an afternoon in December of 2011. They recorded video testimonials about why they were a Republican, the raw footage of which remains on Vimeo.
By June 2012, word about the project already made the circles of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill. In particular, a small group of GOP Hill staffers expressed doubt that the site would be little more than window dressing. Others questioned the idea of asking black people for their votes against President Obama.
"Am I wrong to be cynical?" said one Hill staffer who works for a prominent Republican. "Am I wrong to think that this is going to be a hot ass mess?"
According to a source familiar with the process, Wright met with RNC officials on June 12. Some in the RNC were critical of the project because it did not have a call to action or give Republicans activities to attach to the rollout of the site. Vallante scrambled to save the project, proposing a set of ideas which included town halls, reaching out to black GOP clergy members, and introducing more black surrogates into the mix.
But by July, two sources said it was too late.
On Aug. 1, 2012, Wright contacted the RNC regarding what to tell West about the site as it became clear the site had fallen out of favor with Spicer and the RNC.
"Here's what I suggest," Vallante said in an email to Wright. "The web site is held up because other than the website that you built for the Co-Chairman, there are no other programs or plans to reach black voters at the RNC, and people here are concerned that the website is 'not enough.' And if [he] asks who he should call – the answer should be the Chairman's office. I think being honest is the right way to go, not dance around."
BuzzFeed News could not reach Vallante for comment.
Wright said she believes failure of the site to launch was reflected in Republicans' abysmal performance at the polls with black voters.
"My impression was the communications and political offices within the RNC had zero interest in asking for the black vote. Absolutely, zero. And what happened to Romney? He lost the black, Hispanic, Asian, and woman vote and the election. But he won the white vote, more of it than McCain in 2008."
In 2013, months after the site was killed, Michael Steele told BuzzFeed News he'd invested in diversifying the RNC staff while he was chair by building a six-person committee focused primarily on minority outreach. He also referenced a website as a weak way to reach out.
"But that was disbanded by Reince," Steele said. "So then they sit back and scratch their heads and wonder why they didn't have the kind of response from those communities they wanted. Well, you can't just throw up a website, throw some black faces on there, and think we would be impressed. It's a cynical ploy as viewed by many African-Americans."
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Darren Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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