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In post-Obama America, small inroads with blacks would be big for GOP

Down in Monroe, La., hard by Black Bayou Lake, U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander wonders why Republican leaders in Washington haven’t sought his advice on their initiative to improve the party’s anemic standing among African-American voters.

Compared with his Republican peers in the House of Representatives, Alexander is unusually adept at drawing black votes.

“It’s something they should have been doing to begin with,” Alexander said of his party’s new outreach to black voters.

Alexander’s congressional district is one-third black, the largest share among the 234 House districts held by Republicans – none of whom is African-American.

Nationwide, nine in 10 black voters chose Democrats over Republicans in congressional races in November, and 93 percent of African-Americans supported President Barack Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney, exit polls showed.

Alexander drew 43 percent of his African-American constituents’ votes, four times more than the typical Republican lawmaker gets, on his way to winning easy re-election in November, according to a McClatchy analysis of the outcome in 93 virtually all-black precincts in his district.

“You would think (the GOP) leadership would recognize that someone who gets 78 percent of the vote in a 33 percent black district might ask me how I do that, but you’re the first person who’s asked,” Alexander told McClatchy.

Eleven of the 234 Republican House seats are in districts where at least one-quarter of eligible voters are African-Americans, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Those districts are all in the South, spread among Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia.

McClatchy was able to obtain November 2012 precinct-level election results, broken down by race, for six of the 11 districts. McClatchy analyzed 193 precincts with an average of 94 percent African-American voters in those six districts.

Support for the white Republican lawmakers among black voters in the six districts varies widely, from Alexander’s 43 percent and the 30 percent standing enjoyed by fellow Louisianan Rep. John Fleming, to virtually no support – in the 1 percent range – for Reps. Tom Rice of South Carolina and Martha Roby of Alabama.

Alexander and the other lawmakers who represent those districts have some ideas for their GOP colleagues about how to court black voters: Go into their communities, avoid inflammatory language, don’t come across like a big shot and answer all questions forthrightly no matter how tough.

“I don’t think you’ll find anybody at my town hall meetings who thought that I used harsh rhetoric,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.

While Republicans’ outreach to Hispanics has received broad attention of late, the Republican National Committee, led by chairman Reince Priebus, has launched a less-heralded bid to break Democrats’ electoral stranglehold on African-American votes.

Under Priebus’ new motto “Open for Repairs,” the initiatives are part of Republicans’ broader rebranding effort following Obama’s decisive defeat of Romney with strong support from women, youth, blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

“Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” a task force of GOP leaders concluded in a March report.

As they begin to look toward the post-Obama era, even modest improvements among African-American voters could bring Republicans big electoral gains.

President George W. Bush got 16 percent of the Ohio black vote in 2004, helping him carry the decisive state in his narrow re-election win. Only 3 percent of African-Americans in Ohio voted for Romney in November, by contrast, and the former Massachusetts governor had drop-offs among blacks in Florida, Virginia and other swing states that he lost.

Republicans, though, face formidable challenges in their quest to increase support among African-Americans:

– Their intense criticism of Obama is viewed by many blacks as personal and hostile, likely offsetting any steps they take to build goodwill with African-Americans.

“Today it’s racial because you have a black man in the White House and they are determined to make him a failure,” said James Bradford, a black constituent of Alexander in Jonesboro, La. “They are attacking every program that affects black folks. That may not be their intention, but that’s what they’re doing.”

– The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has voted 37 times to repeal what Republicans deride as Obamacare, even though the Senate Democratic majority makes those votes purely symbolic. Voting dozens of times to repudiate Obama’s signature legislative achievement strikes blacks as political overkill.

– Most congressional Republicans’ desire to slash government spending has led them to target safety net programs that disproportionately impact African-Americans because a larger proportion of blacks than whites are poor.

David Bositis, who has tracked black voting for two decades while doing extensive polling and focus groups among African-Americans, said Republican officeholders in the South are setting their party back among blacks for years by blocking the enactment of the 2010 landmark health insurance law.

“Black support for Medicaid expansion is 90 percent, and yet these state legislatures and governors are not going to expand Medicaid,” said Bositis, an analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “There will be dead black people because of them.”

The Republican National Committee task force recommended developing “best practices of Republicans who were successfully elected in districts with a high population of African-American voters.”

That description fits Alexander, a sixth-term congressman who suggests one good practice: Stop using rhetoric that offends many blacks.

As Exhibit A, Alexander offered Romney’s “47 percent” campaign claim that most Obama supporters view themselves as victims who are on the government dole because they don’t take responsibility for their lives.

“I supported Romney, but I was very disappointed he said that,” Alexander said. “It hurt all of us (Republicans). That’s one reason the Republican Party gets in trouble sometimes – assuming that if you are in need of help, you are asking for something you don’t deserve.”

Republicans don’t expect a mass political conversion of African-Americans anytime soon. But especially once Obama leaves office, they see an opening for the party of Lincoln. It must start, party leaders say, with baby steps: Republican candidates going into black communities, explaining their positions and asking for African-Americans’ votes.

In South Carolina, Mulvaney didn’t fare nearly as well as Alexander among the blacks who make up one-quarter of his constituents, the ninth-biggest share among all Republican House members. Mulvaney drew just 4 percent of their votes in November, according to a McClatchy analysis of 19 heavily African-American precincts in his district.

Yet Mulvaney has attended town hall meetings hosted by the local branch of the NAACP, most recently in February, when he spent two hours answering questions from a mostly black audience of about 60 people.

“I’m not doing this to try and get votes,” Mulvaney told McClatchy afterward. “I’m doing this because these are people I represent.”

Melvin Poole, a tax-preparation firm owner and head of the Rock Hill, S.C., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Mulvaney gained some respect and may have picked up a few votes.

People were impressed that the second-term lawmaker walked into Freedom Temple Ministries church in Rock Hill without aides or notes, carrying only a bottle of water, and then spent so much time there.

“He got some real tough questions – about the Affordable Care Act, about the budget cuts, about jobs,” Poole recalled. “He didn’t cut us off and run out of the building. He stayed until every question that anybody had was asked and answered. He was really down to earth. It was like standing next to a guy in the park and just talking.”

Mulvaney was surprised in January when he attended Obama’s second inauguration at the U.S. Capitol and a reporter asked him why he was there, given that most of his fellow Republican lawmakers were absent.

“That’s absurd,” Mulvaney responded. “Forty-five percent of the people I represent voted for this gentleman, so I’m going to come and represent them at this very important proceeding.”

In Mississippi, Rep. Gregg Harper was the only one of three white Republican House members who attended an emotional memorial service last month at Arlington National Cemetery for Medgar Evers on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s murder.

“What happened in that murder was a great tragedy,” Harper told McClatchy. “It’s part of our history – not one that we’re proud of, but to see where we’ve come is pretty remarkable. And I just wanted to be there to pay my respects.”

Echoing Mulvaney, Harper added: “I didn’t do that hoping I might pick up minority voters. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Some Southern states’ responses to the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision weakening the 1965 Voting Rights Act also might hinder Republicans’ progress with African-Americans.

Republican leaders in several Southern states covered by the high court ruling, including Texas and North Carolina, have indicated they will move forward with voter ID laws that the Justice Department or federal courts had blocked or restricted. Leading civil rights groups argue that such laws depress the black vote by requiring driver’s licenses or other forms of identification that relatively fewer African-Americans possess.

“It is hardly reaching out to blacks to push these harmful laws forward, particularly since there is no voter fraud that needs to be addressed with drastic legislation that disenfranchises African-Americans,” said Garrard Beeney, a New York lawyer who represented the NAACP and other groups in the South Carolina voter ID case.

In Washington, the GOP rebranding task force recommended that the Republican National Committee hire black communications and political operatives to head the African-American outreach, which it has done. The GOP leaders made a slew of other proposals:

– Establish ties with the NAACP and other civil rights groups.

– Recruit party members at historically black colleges.

– Develop a training program for African-American Republican candidates.

– Create a database of black leaders.

– Promote black staffers “who should be visible and involved in senior political and budget decisions.”

– Assemble a “surrogate list” of African-Americans to appear in black news media.

For Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate, these steps are all well and good, but he’s focused on more concrete measures.

Paul and Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, are pushing a bill to authorize judges to disregard mandatory minimum sentences for an array of federal crimes, many of them drug-related. Such sentences, which give judges no leeway in setting punishment even for relatively minor crimes, have helped swell the country’s inmate population, with a disproportionate impact on young black men.

Paul is developing separate legislation to prevent federal grants to police and sheriff departments from being tied to arrest rates, which he says leads officers to detain a disproportionate number of African-Americans.

“We think it’s at the very least implicitly racist, and we’re going to put a stop to it,” Paul told McClatchy.

Mulvaney, the South Carolina Republican, has learned to vet his language closely when speaking with African-American and Hispanic constituents – and to free it from Republican ideological baggage.

“In those ethnic groups, the word ‘community’ has a very powerful cultural meaning,” he said. “To many white Republicans, we respond to that word as a synonym for the government. We sit here, and we extoll the role of the individual over the role of the community, because many of us equate community with government. And I think by doing that, we alienate some folks to our message.”

Mulvaney, though, thinks it will take a “transformational figure” to draw significant numbers of blacks to the Republican Party.

Mulvaney believes that such a figure will have to be an African-American. He names Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian who is the only black Republican in Congress, and J.C. Watts, the former college football star and lawmaker from Oklahoma.

Scott dislikes focusing on the color of his skin, much like Obama. He does, though, believe that his personal story of having risen from an impoverished childhood to a prominent place in American politics could gain him an audience that other Republicans don’t have.

“It’s really taking the time to share my personal journey, which has a lot of roadblocks, a lot of hurdles and a lot of failure, and connecting that to the American dream and how it is available to all of us,” Scott said in an interview.

“And perhaps if pain and failure lead forward, I have an opportunity to share that with others,” Scott said. “I hope to be part of bringing that message to (South Carolina) and maybe one day to the nation.”

While Watts remains a loyal Republican, he’s skeptical that his party’s new push for African-American loyalists will have much staying power.

“The key is to put teeth into it and to be real about it,” Watts said last month while attending the North Carolina Republican Convention in Charlotte. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Chris Adams of the Washington Bureau contributed.

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