CLEVELAND —It was an at-times tense but by all accounts probing conversation when a few hundred gathered here recently in a downtown warehouse space outfitted with projectors, folding chairs and a modest stage.
The two-hour forum was not unlike the scores of conversations on race that have taken place in community forums, on barstools and across kitchen tables throughout the country in recent months and years, fueled by the election of the nation’s first black president and a renewed focus on policing of black communities in light of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings.
Voices were raised, ovations were given, disagreements were hugged out. Few solutions were uncovered — but no one really expected them to be on this night.
What made the recent event stand out from other public forums was that the dialogue was facilitated and organized entirely by Republicans.
The gathering is part of efforts by the local GOP, in advance of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, to reach out to communities that have been reliable Democratic constituencies in modern years — black, Hispanic and LGBT voters. As part of those efforts, led by Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio GOP has brought in a number of young minority political operatives and reached out to donors and operatives previously aligned with local Democrats. The Ohio efforts are part of a larger U.S. strategy led by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to actively court black voters who have rebuffed outreach efforts targeting them in election cycles past.
Hosted by the Cuyahoga County GOP, the “Rebuilding America’s Great Urban Core” forum featured local activist, public speaker and former Democratic city council candidate Basheer Jones, who debated Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason Riley, a black conservative who has become a darling of the right after his commentary following the Brown shooting and unrest in Ferguson, Mo. The real solution, he often posits, is that blacks must help themselves and stop blaming their ills on systemic racism.
“I, too, would like to see more black outreach [by the GOP], if only so that blacks get better political representation from Democrats who cannot take them for granted,” Riley declared. “A black man in the White House is all well and good, but it is no substitute for a black man in the home. . . . Ultimately, blacks have to help themselves.”
And winning in a country with quickly changing racial and ethnic demographics and a constantly shifting electorate, they say, requires expanding beyond the suburban and rural white voters who in modern history have been the core of the GOP coalition.
“This isn’t just about communicating. It isn’t just about changing a message. It’s engaging with the very diverse community that is Cleveland,” said Cuyahoga County GOP chairman Rob Frost, who stressed that courting black voters requires much more than improved messaging. “What we’ve got to have are African American leaders who are going to be in our strategy sessions, who are going to be helping us set the agenda. We’ve got to change from the inside.”
The winning formula, GOP operatives insist, is competing on the margins for the black and brown votes they’ve been ceding in recent years to Democrats. But to compete, they acknowledge, they have to be willing to discuss issues of race, prejudice and discrimination that often make members of their party uncomfortable.
“We’ve got Fergusons all over America today,” said George Voinovich, the former Republican senator and governor of Ohio who served nine years as mayor of Cleveland and is still well-regarded in many of the city’s minority communities. “All you’ve got to do is open your eyes. Look at police departments today in communities like Ferguson. Two or three African Americans? Anybody with half a brain would know something is wrong there.”
The highest percentage of black voters in history turned out in 2012, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney captured just 6 percent of their vote. More than 66 percent of eligible blacks cast ballots in the 2012 presidential contest, which was the first time since 1968 that eligible black voters showed up at a higher rate than eligible white voters, who turned out at 64.1 percent that year.
Priebus has championed a simple ideology in response: If we don’t show up and ask, of course they won’t vote for us.
Based on that philosophy, the RNC has hired several young, black operatives to oversee a renewed focus on black voter and black media outreach, and the RNC has opened field offices specifically targeting black voters in key presidential swing states, including Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida.
For years, Republicans nationwide have argued that black voters are being taken for granted by the Democrats they continually elect in local and state races and back in national contests. But, many GOP operatives acknowledge, their party had simultaneously given up on seriously courting black votes. Now, GOP operatives in Washington and throughout the country are re-committing to true grass-roots efforts to establish a footprint in previously neglected minority communities.
“Instead of getting 6 percent of the black vote in this country, if we get out there and fight and talk to people, can we get 15?” Priebus asked during a speech in August. “Can we get 20? And then two years later, can we get 22 and 23?”
Democratic operatives, meanwhile, contend that no amount of changed messaging and renewed outreach by Republicans will make up for policies that they say are offensive to black voters.
Democrats point specifically to voter ID laws and court challenges to early voting options that have been pushed by Republicans in many states as major reasons why black and other minority voters are unlikely to support the GOP, despite renewed outreach efforts. While Republicans have insisted that voter ID laws are meant to combat voter fraud — a crime that several studies have found is rarely committed — civil rights groups and Democrats have insisted that the laws are an attempt to disenfranchise minority voters.
“There is a fundamental truism in modern American politics,” said Mo Elleithee, the Democratic National Committee’s communications director, during a briefing on the DNC’s midterm voter mobilization efforts in August. “And that is: When more people vote, we win. When fewer people vote, they win.”
But Republicans counter that there is an untapped swath of GOP-leaning voters in black communities who would be willing to vote with them if they thought they were being actively courted and engaged — and if hot-button issues such as race were addressed more articulately and addressed in the first place.
In Ferguson, black leaders and residents say they are ready to give the GOP a chance.
Angered by the show of support from local white Democrats for St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, many blacks in Greater St. Louis have vowed to oust local Democratic leadership. Some black voters say McCulloch has a cozy relationship with local law enforcement and should step aside in the Brown case.
More than two dozen local black leaders have endorsed and are actively campaigning for state Rep. Rick Stream, the GOP candidate for county executive.
This month, close to a hundred protesters picketed a fundraiser for county executive candidate Steve Stenger, the Democrat who defeated a black opponent in a primary this year and has been endorsed by McCulloch. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has been one of McCulloch’s chief defenders publicly, attended the fundraiser.
The protests have also targeted Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, who declined to ask McCulloch to step aside. Many of the Ferguson marches and demonstrations have featured large cardboard cutouts of Nixon’s face with “MIA” scrawled across his forehead. At one march in downtown St. Louis, protesters carried signs that declared: “Tell @GovJayNixon. . . . Lead, Bro!”
Nixon has drawn criticism for what some in Missouri have perceived as a slow response to the shooting and the protests as well as his decision not to ask McCulloch to step down.
Black anger toward Democratic incumbents in Missouri gives hope to national Republican officials who have set up more than 15 offices in black communities across the country — including in Detroit, where the office has worked this year to field black Republican candidates in several local elections.
Other outreach efforts, such as barbershop canvassing and barbecue fundraisers, have taken place in black neighborhoods in Charlotte, Cincinnati and Cleveland. In Cleveland, as in Ferguson (and, national GOP leaders hope, across the country), some young black voters have signaled that they may be willing to hear the Republicans out.
“When we talk about racism, the Democratic Party is just as racist as the Republican Party,” said activist Jones, near the end of the Cleveland forum, which was extended for half an hour because audience members were eager to continue the discussion. “My generation don’t care about Democrat or Republican. My generation is truly up for grabs.”