Kimberly Hefling and Jennifer Agiesta, Washington Post, June 9, 2014
Like an eager date, Leo Smith showed up at Mount Zion First Baptist Church with a bouquet of flowers in hand.
He wasn’t seeking romance. He was seeking voters.
As the minority engagement director for the Georgia Republican Party, Smith is helping to lead an effort to recruit African-American voters in pivotal states, a priority for a heavily white party staring with uncertainty at a country that is fast becoming more black, Hispanic and Asian.
Smith and other black Republicans who are recruiting voters say there are plenty of black conservatives out there. They just don’t want to be identified publicly as conservative or Republican.
“We’re missing some people because they’re whispering, and to have people speak out loud is what we intend to do,” Smith said.
Getting African-Americans and other minority voters on board is a priority for the GOP in part because birth rates among whites are shrinking in the U.S.; racial and ethnic minorities are expected to make up a majority of Americans within about 30 years. The number of African-American voters has increased steadily: 12.9 million in 2000, 14 million in 2004, 16 million in 2008 and 17.8 million in 2012.
Few of those votes went to Republican candidates; most African-American voters do not identify themselves as Republican. Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the networks showed that only about 6 percent identified themselves as GOP voters in 2004, and 4 percent did so in 2008 and 2012.
Once the party of choice for blacks after slavery ended more than a century ago, the GOP says it now wants those votes back. It is spending $60 million to court black voters, and a new initiative aims to recruit 300 women and 200 minorities to run for state and local office.
The party is starting up College Republican chapters at historically black schools such as Morehouse College in Atlanta and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. And on Friday, Koch Industries Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation–run by the billionaire Koch brothers, patrons of libertarian and conservative causes–announced a $25 million grant to the United Negro College Fund, which offers financial aid to students at black colleges and universities.
Smith, a former NAACP leader in Virginia, met up with several potential voters at Delightful Eatz, a downtown Atlanta restaurant near the Martin Luther King National Historical Site. They discussed the GOP’s pro-business message, and Smith encouraged one job-seeker who designs online courses to open her own consulting business rather than looking for employment at a company.
Black Republicans cringe when they hear vitriol from conservatives directed at President Barack Obama, or negative comments about black people coming from extremists. The challenge is to assure blacks who may lean conservative that they can publicly identify with the GOP without hurting their standing in the black community.
“Until they can rid themselves of the factions such as the tea party, it’s going to be extremely difficult to combat that kind of rhetoric to the extent that they will be able to attract African Americans to the party,” said D’Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
Back at Mount Zion, Smith stood and waved to the largely female crowd as the pastor, Rev. John C. Hearst, acknowledged the bouquet that Smith brought. Smith had hoped that some of Georgia’s GOP candidates would join him at the church to meet voters.
None showed up.