CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On the announcement, his picture was squeezed between images of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, former presidents the GOP can get behind. Artur Davis was in North Carolina, where Republicans rule in the state house and legislature. It’s a place where the party that is suffering setbacks elsewhere could relax for a triumphant evening. At least, that’s what I think the folks at the 2013 MeckGOP Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner were doing Saturday night. Luckily, before the closed-press event, featured speaker Davis previewed his remarks and why his inclusive message matters to the GOP’s future.
“I think the conservatives have to understand that we’ve got to talk about not just the government we want to repeal but how we’re going to make the government that exists work better,” Davis told me. As the parties spar over sequester, appointments and more, it seemed a timely message.
For Mecklenburg County Republicans, Davis was a great get. Though the party is riding high in North Carolina, a changing population makes it look too much like neighboring Virginia for GOP comfort. A former Democratic U.S. congressman from Alabama, Davis was a national co-chair for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and made a nominating speech for him at the Democratic National Convention. In Congress, he was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the Affordable Care Act. In his bid to become Alabama’s first African American governor, he lost in the primary to a candidate that favored the health care bill.
By the time of President Obama’s re-election campaign, Davis had switched parties and now is a resident of Virginia, where some say he may run for office. Davis said that’s not his immediate plan. Republicans, of course, would like to see other minorities follow Davis’ journey away from President Obama and Democratic Party principles. Davis thinks it’s a possibility. “The Democratic Party in North Carolina reminds me of the Democratic Party in Alabama. It’s a party that’s gone so far to the left, it’s abandoned a lot of people.”
He said, though, that Republicans need “to move past the fixation of how do we counter Obama, how do we stop Obama. We’ve got to move to figuring out how do we make the party attractive to more people.” Of the man he once supported, Davis said, “I don’t think he’s been a terribly successful president, but then he got re-elected.” Now, people around the country can’t understand why, he said, “the idea of cutting spending is some kind of a radical, strange event.”
“The Republican Party is at its best when it explains to people why conservatism works in their lives. That applies to outreach to blacks, it applies to outreach to young people, it applies to outreach to blue collars, Hispanics, fill in the blank,” he said. “The Republican Party is at its worst when it’s not able to make a case about what conservatism means in the lives of ordinary people.”
“I recognize there is a stream of the party whose only interest is making sure that no new law is passed. That’s not where the majority of the American people are,” Davis said. “That doesn’t make them takers; that doesn’t make them people who are being pandered to,” he said. “It makes them taxpayers who actually want the government they are funding to align with their interests and their lives.”
On the commemoration weekend of the historic 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Davis also commented on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose relevance is being debated by the Supreme Court. A county in his former home state of Alabama is challenging the part of the law that requires states with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department approval before making changes in election laws.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said of the effort. “I’ve been a critic of construing the act to create these super-majority, heavily gerrymandered districts, which make it impossible for a conservative black Democrat to win.” That’s designed “to elect a particular kind of black Democrat,” he said, “one that’s blessed by the African American political establishment.
“Is appealing section 5 the best way to attack that problem? I candidly don’t think so. I think the backlash from appealing section 5 is probably not going to be one that’s very pleasant. I would rather have seen an attack on the way the dilution standards are interpreted; I would rather have seen an attack on the way section 2 is interpreted.”
U.S. Congress members from North Carolina had traveled from Washington for Saturday’s dinner, with fiscal battles still on their mind. “This is a baby step on what needs to be done to cut spending,” said Congressman Robert Pittenger of the sequester, and “not as tragic or hysterical as the president has gone around the country talking about.” He said, “If you have a cavity, you drill the cavity. You don’t give out a candy bar. And the president loves to give out candy bars.”
It wasn’t just this Democratic president, either, according to Pittenger. Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty Great Society programs created what Pittenger called the “class warfare mentality” that divided the electorate in the 1960s, veering a little toward Mitt Romney’s post-election comments on Obama’s “gifts” to certain communities to gain votes. Others examining voting changes in the 1960s have attributed the GOP embrace of a “Southern strategy” to attract Democrats angered by Johnson’s signature on civil rights bills as the reason his party has had trouble broadening its voting base, particularly in the South. An example of someone who doesn’t “buy into” the “class warfare” is Republican Tim Scott, Pittenger said, referring to the African American senator from South Carolina.
Pittenger did have kind words for Bill Clinton, the president he credited with being “smart enough to work with Newt Gingrich to create the welfare to work program.”
Referring to the president with top billing at the evening’s dinner, Pittenger said Abraham Lincoln represented “the true Republican philosophy,” a comment that could itself be seen as progress in some parts of the region. “He fought for everyone — he fought for people of color in the South. That’s who I am.”
As a discussion of ways the GOP can attract more minorities rambled from mention of the Great Society to class warfare to welfare to work to Tim Scott to Abraham Lincoln, it was clear that party leaders are still honing the message that will accomplish Artur Davis’ goal, “to make the case that conservative Republican Party policies will work in every single community.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3