To mark Black History Month, the Republican National Committee has released a series of radio and print ads that highlight famous black Republicans, among them Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, currently the only black Republican member of Congress, and Mia Love, who is running for a House seat in Utah and who could make history by becoming the first black woman to join the Republican ranks in Congress. It’s a familiar message from Republicans, one that was most awkwardly on display when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), went to Howard University in April 2013 and proceeded to namedrop black Republicans and offer a history lesson to students on the party’s stance on slavery and segregation.
It did not go well.
Similarly, the party sparked backlash with this poorly worded tweet, that suggested that racism, and its lingering impact was no longer an issue for many Americans:
“This Black History Month, we are excited about the unique opportunity to share the remarkable stories of black Republicans who have broken barriers and opened doors so that others may succeed,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a press release. “Recognizing these truly accomplished trailblazers through black media is an important opportunity to honor our past and build our future.”
The Black History Month effort also includes 30-second radio ads that will run in Washington, D.C,, Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta.
But there is a present reality that is top of mind for many African American voters that has nothing to do with reminding them that Frederick Douglass was a Republican and everything to do with policy. Let’s look at Douglass, since the RNC brings him up. Douglass was a Republican for a very simply policy reason: Republicans were the anti-slavery party. That turned out to be a great policy initiative for African-Americans.
And in some ways, Paul, despite stumbling at Howard, was onto something in highlighting racial disparities around mandatory drug sentencing laws, which he has said has had a harsh impact on black communities. It’s an issue that also has been taken up by civil rights groups.
The question for Republicans is will they recognize that, although messaging is important, ultimately policy wins the day. African American voters, as it turns out, are like every other voter. They vote, by and large, based on policy, not race. The gold standard was President George W. Bush, who increased his share of the black vote in 2004 key swing states like Ohio and Virginia, by focusing on traditional marriage, an issue that, at the time, resonated with church-going African Americans.
Some Republicans, particularly black Republicans, have often made the argument that African American candidates could draw a significant share of black voters to the party, but the numbers suggest otherwise. The 2006 midterms featured three black Republicans running for statewide races and the exit polls didn’t show major bumps in black support. In Ohio, Ken Blackwell who ran for governor in 2006 , got 20 percent of the black vote, outpacing the nationwide average that year which was 10 percent, yet he was nowhere near the 42 percent of the black vote that Republican George Voinovich posted among black voters when he was reelected governor in 1994.
Even Al Sharpton struggled in 2004 to get the support of black voters in the South Carolina primary–African American preferred then-senator John Kerry instead, voting based on practicality, rather than some sort of racial loyalty.
In short, African American voters, who backed President Obama at 93 percent in 2012, aren’t likely to change their policy views and party affiliation, just because Love and Scott are black Republicans. It will take some serious effort to close the minority voter gap and the RNC is clearly at the very beginning of a long process.