Kenya Evelyn, The Guardian, March 12, 2020
For Brad Mole, venturing into Republican politics didn’t start with a sudden awakening to conservatism. It was his religious upbringing and way of life that brought him to the Republican party.
“My faith pushed me more toward policies that better reflected my upbringing,” he said. “I began understanding that the teachings I was raised with were more reflected in a party that not many around me identified with.”
As analysts debunk the myth of the black voter monolith, some black Republicans are stepping forward to counter stereotypes and assert a political identity very different from the usual assumption that all black Americans are Democrats, especially in the era of Donald Trump.
As one of seven Republicans running for the seat, Mole credits his religious background for his motivations to join the crowded race. Those same traditions are often associated with centrist African American political leanings. But for black Americans like Mole, their conservatism leads some to question whether their political party and preferences actually match their worldview.
“I am the typical black person who voted for Barack Obama, but I then voted for Trump,” he said. “At some point you think for yourself and say: ‘You know what? I’m not voting this person or this ticket just because my grandma or parents did.’”
Ahead of a June Republican primary and the 2020 presidential election, Mole says he is connecting with fellow voters in ways he said speak more to the nuance of conservative cultural traditions.
He is not alone. Kaaryn Walker, president of Black Conservatives for Truth, founded the advocacy group as an outlet for black Americans to connect with one another and draw attention to conservative policy initiatives.
“Sometimes you find that people share the same politics you do, but because of fear or backlash, black people don’t talk about it,” said Walker.
“If you want to see the Republican party be more diverse, you have to see us being active in the party,” she said.
Walker has identified as a conservative for more than 25 years, pointing to her pro-life leanings and support for free market economics. Like Mole, an upbringing steeped in tradition led her to a closer affiliation with Republicans than the Democratic party her family typically supported.
In her outreach, she often challenges others to rethink how Democratic platforms represent black values.
“We engage on policy and that’s when people start seeing distinctions,” she said. “People start seeing other like-minded conservatives and say: ‘My policy and mindset doesn’t fit the Democratic party and that’s OK.’”
In the decades since the notorious Southern Strategy saw white southerners flock to the Republican party in the wake of the successes of the civil rights movement, black voters have maintained close ties with Democrats that has remained steady throughout much of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Modern black Republicans aren’t a particularly new phenomenon, though. Several conservatives, including the former Republican party chair Michael Steele and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, have led prominent Republican initiatives that, in the past, sparked speculation of potential presidential runs.
The South Carolina senator Tim Scott has more recently stepped forward as one of the president’s most loyal supporters and has been at the forefront of the Trump administration’s efforts to appeal to black voters.
Still, as the Republican party began leaning further right in the 2010s, black Americans moved left. The numbers bear out the dominance of the Democrats. More than 88% of black Americans voted for the Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Walker insisted pundits shouldn’t rule out black support for the president this time around.
“Narrowing the wage gap, the First Step Act for prison reform, investing in black colleges,” she said. “Those of us proud of that progress are doing the work of educating the people who are ignorant to it.”
About two-thirds of African Americans identified as Democrats, down from the first half of Barack Obama’s presidency. Back then, about 75% of black Americans were affiliated with the Democratic party.
In addition, Pew noted that just 8% of black voters identify as Republican, the same percentage as voted for Trump in 2016. African Americans are 11% of the American electorate overall.
As Democratic campaigns face increasing demand to center black voter diversity, the Trump administration took notice, investing additional campaign dollars on aggressive outreach to African American communities.
Those initiatives include campaign ads in traditional black media outlets and a slew of “Black Voices for Trump” rallies at makeshift community storefronts in key battleground states.
In a press release announcing the initiative, the Trump campaign pinpointed “record-low minority unemployment rates” and investments in historically black colleges and universities, as evidence of the president’s continued commitment to black communities.
“President Trump has a real record of results for black Americans, and our party is committed to sharing that winning message far and wide,” the Republican national committee chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, said.
Opponents of Trump point to his controversial past with race, including a history of housing discrimination lawsuits. Although one in six black Americans are the children of immigrants, Trump has called Caribbean and African nations “shithole countries”, recently banning migrants from several African nations.
Most notable are a series of print ads in 1989 calling for the death penalty for the now-exonerated Central Park Five. Authorities involved in the case later said the ads contributed to the black and Latino men’s wrongful convictions.
Walker admits an uphill battle in wooing fellow African Americans who take issue with the president’s record. She counters criticisms of being a “traitor to her race” by contending no one person is representative of the party values.
“If the only reason that you’re a Democrat is because you think the Republicans are racist then you need to go back and figure out why you’re really a Democrat,” she said.
“Racism does not discriminate by party, and you see that playing out right now in the Democratic primaries with misstep after misstep.”
But the vitriol has gotten intense. Walker recalled being unfriended, blocked or disinvited from events many times in recent years.
The rise of prominent black Republican figures whose platforms stoke controversy can also make her a target.
“Sometimes I’ll get a call to my phone or social media and a phantom voice is yelling, screaming and cursing at me,” she said. “But then they’re surprised when I respond with ‘Are you done? Now let’s try that again and actually have a dialogue because that’s what politics are about.’”
To Mole, pushback is an opportunity to engage. He noted peer support for his platform seldom wanes even after he mentions his name will appear on the ballot with an “R”.
“Sometimes you get a look, or an ‘I don’t know about that’ but, most times, from just talking, folks open up and realize for themselves just how conservative their values are.”
But he’s not out to change minds; he wants rebuild a sense of community.
Pointing to recent White House forums tackling black issues alongside Senator Scott, Mole said there was a momentum building most would overlook – one that motivates him as he canvasses the state.
“People out there are looking for someone that’s going to listen to them and one of the first things my party can do is just come to the table,” he said. “I’m willing to have those conversations where people of either party don’t go, to speak to the issues.”
Although he is a heavy underdog, it’s those kitchen-table discussions on shared traditional values Mole hopes will draw voters out in June, and again in November, regardless of his placing in the state primary.
Walker insisted what’s at stake is bigger than any one election or polarizing president.
“We’re a community whose principles and convictions are silenced in the broader narrative of black voters,” she said. “But we’re here fighting to preserve our conservative culture as we vote Republican across the country.”