The GOP Is Making a Play for the Black Evangelical Vote

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Republicans see opportunity. Photo: HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

Maybe they are feeling desperate — or maybe they are feeling hopeful. But last weekend, the GOP — which has been grappling with its reputation as a party of and for white people — did something historic at an Evangelical confab in Iowa: They made an organized play for a chunk of the black Christian vote, and brought in black church leaders to help them do it.

Since the days when the moon had no footprints on it, the black vote has gone so overwhelmingly for Democrats that the GOP has never invested much effort in trying to carve it up. Never mind that 61 percent of blacks self-identify as "born-again" — the highest of any racial group by far — and that those voters tend to agree with their white evangelical counterparts on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. And polls show that while religious white Americans are more than twice as likely to identify as Republicans, black Americans are strongly inclined to vote Democrat, regardless of their religious affiliation. In spite of these striking stats, however, GOP leaders admit that black religious leaders have been largely absent from the party's strategy process. 

But in Iowa last Friday, minority church leaders finally got a seat at the table, when a group of about twenty black and Hispanic pastors joined 400 Iowa evangelicals in Des Moines for a two-day Christian Right confab. The pastors heard speeches from Senate Tea Party darlings Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and sat down with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to discuss how the GOP could better establish relationships with churchgoers in black and Hispanic communities.

Republican strategists said that Friday’s meeting was the first time in recent memory that the Party has made a concerted effort to include black and Hispanic church leaders in developing the GOP's minority outreach strategy. While individual candidates — most notably former President George W. Bush — have brought on black Christian leaders to advise their campaign strategies, the party proper has lacked a cohesive plan to build relationships with black and Hispanic Evangelicals in between election cycles. 

"The party has done very little to bring black and Hispanic Evangelicals into the fold," said J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman who has been pushing the GOP to recruit minorities into the party’s inner circle. "If you’re going to tell me that's too harsh, then I'll say, fine. They've not done much. You can probably put into a thimble what the RNC has done to create any kind of network."

Attendees at Friday's meeting proposed holding similar events at different venues around the country, where black and Hispanic leaders could discuss political issues that are important to their communities in the context of "Biblical, spiritual principles," said Kevin McGary, chairman of the California chapter of the Frederick Douglass Society, a "Christ-centered, multicultural, Republican ministry." 

The events would also give the GOP a conduit to black and Hispanic leaders, providing the party with the opportunity to form organic relationships with minority voters, and move away from the outreach model that many black and Hispanic conservatives find insulting. 

"We don't want outreach, that's cheap," McGary told Daily Intelligencer in a phone interview last week. "We want to be part of the strategy. We want to be included, and not pandered to."

The idea for the conferences is modeled after the "Pastors and Pews" confabs organized by California Evangelical political operative David Lane, the Christian Right mastermind behind "The Response," Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2011 prayer rally. Lane, who orchestrated last week's event in Iowa, has been hooking Republican leaders up with conservative Evangelical pastors since 2005, with the goal of igniting a "spiritual revival in America," and getting more of the 65 to 80 million born-again Christians in the U.S. to vote for conservatives. 

"We're mobilizing this constituency," Lane told Daily Intelligencer Friday, adding that he believes only half of Evangelicals in the country are registered to vote. "If we could get just 3 percent more of these Christians to vote, we could change elections."

The idea also has the backing of Sen. Paul, who traveled with Lane to Israel last January, and hooked him up with McGary after a trip to California in June. Over the past few months, the Kentucky Republican has emerged as an unlikely leader of the Republican Party's minority outreach efforts, giving a speech at historically black Howard University, and organizing meetings with black community leaders in Louisville, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., on the issue of school choice. 

Paul's efforts underscore a broader realization among Republicans that the Party's lack of minority outreach has taken its toll at polls. In its autopsy report of the 2012 election, the RNC made the belated discovery that it had become "the party of stuffy old white men" — a rather obvious observation to anyone who has looked at election results over the past ten years. Even as non-white voters continue to make up a growing percentage of the electorate, the GOP’s share of the black and Hispanic vote has steadily declined. Between 3 and 4 million new black voters joined the electorate over the last two election cycles, with the overwhelming majority casting their ballots for President Barack Obama. Among Latinos, just 27 percent voted for Mitt Romney in the last election cycle, compared to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008, and 44 for George W. Bush in 2004.

Watts, who has been haranguing the GOP about minority outreach since the 1990s, believes that the party’s poor performance among black and Hispanic voters is partly the result of its failure to bring black and Hispanic leaders to the table. 

"It's about having relationships, and that covers a multitude of sins," Watts told Daily Intelligencer in a phone interview. "People will extend more grace, they're more willing to listen, if you have a relationship with them ... If Evangelicals trust you, then they will give you a little more latitude."

While Watts gives Paul credit for "showing up," he is less optimistic that the Republican Party is committed to its new strategy to reach out to minority Evangelicals. For one, the plan emphasizes the same social policies — most notably, opposition to abortion and gay marriage — that Republican leaders have sought to downplay in the wake of the 2012 election. Beyond social issues, polls show that there is little political agreement between white and black Evangelicals. 

"Some of it is showing up, but at the same time, if you're going to show up, you got to have a plan," Watts said. "My being against your plan is not a plan. I disagree with the models that President Obama has used to try to stimulate the economy and on health care — but the fact is, health care and jobs are an issue to many people. So, what's our plan?"

"I'm not convinced that the RNC gets it," Watts added. "I'm not sure they're doing anything. I think they've done some cosmetology, but when you peel the onion back, there's not a lot of substance."