Fresh off his re-election as Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus has hit the road to deliver a message that the GOP must find a way to attract more support from non-white voters.
The question is how. During a stop in Atlanta to talk with black voters Thursday, Priebus said the answer is more about framing than about substance.
“I think freedom and liberty is a fresh idea,” he said after a closed-door session with about two dozen black business and civic leaders. “I think it’s always a revolutionary idea. I don’t think there’s anything we need to fix as far as our principles and our policies.”
President Barack Obama won more than 90 percent of the black vote in each of his elections, and he won about 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in November against Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Non-white voters are becoming an increasingly larger share of the electorate, meaning the GOP has to find a way to cut into Democratic advantages to reclaim the Oval Office.
The priority, Priebus said, will be investing time in the African-American community. “I don’t think you can show up a few months before the election,” he said. “It’s not good enough to have a national spokesmen. You have to have people in communities, from the community, both hired and volunteer, but from the community speaking to the community.”
As an example of bad messaging, Priebus cited Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri, who imploded last fall — and damaged the national GOP brand — when he said women can’t get pregnant after a “legitimate rape.” The chairman said it was unfair to use Akin as the representative of the party because “it ends up falsely highlighting the position” of one man. But, he added, “If you don’t make the sale, if you don’t get to know people ... you are susceptible to being whoever the other side says you are.”
He said the same dynamic is true in debates over voter ID laws that Republicans have pushed in states across the country. Democrats have strongly argued that the measures, along with limitations on early voting, negatively affect poor, minority and older voters.
African-Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since the civil rights era in the mid-20th century, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
“If you don’t show up to make the sale,” he said, “the caricature becomes true.”
Priebus was in Atlanta as part of a national “listening tour” that he said fits into the national party’s development of a strategy to broaden its base, which has become older, whiter and more conservative in recent election cycles. Georgia, he said, offers a key opportunity to pick-up African-Americans. It’s also a necessity, as the state’s demographic shifts suggest a long-term Democratic advantage if current voting patterns hold.
Ashley Bell, an Atlanta attorney and black Republican, helped organize the meeting with Priebus. “People want to be treated with respect,” Bell said. “They want to see candidates who respect their votes. They want to see you at the churches. They want to see you at the NAACP meetings. They want to see you where they expect their leaders.”
Bell was elected to the Hall County Commission as a Democrat and attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention where Obama, then a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, was the keynote speaker. Bell switched parties in 2010 and later lost his re-election bid under the GOP banner.