After the 2012 elections, critics opined that the GOP was on the road to demographic extinction. “Its supporters are predominantly white and increasingly old,” they said, “and the country is diverse and filled with the young.” “The future,” they declared, “rests with the young and minorities.”
The Republican National Committee seems to agree.
Seeking to end the assumption that most minorities will inevitably support the Democratic party, the RNC launched an official review of Republican strategy called the Growth & Opportunity Project. With a special emphasis on attracting young and minority voters, this arm of the GOP has joined with candidates and lawmakers across the country to take the message of freedom and economic opportunity to communities that rarely receive visits from Republicans.
“We’re all focused on showing up in the places where we have not necessarily always been in the past in order to share our message,” Orlando Watson, the RNC’s communications director for black media, told me. He said the RNC has begun minority outreach in Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, and other states. “We have to share the message of economic growth and education reform with people and let them know that we do care, we are present, and we try to create opportunity for everyone.”
Two of the first trial runs for the GOP’s new strategy came with the gubernatorial races of Virginia and New Jersey, states where the RNC was actively engaged in minority outreach on the ground. The results were mixed. In Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli lost the minority vote in a landslide. Chris Christie, however, sailed to victory with 21 percent of the African-American vote, up from Romney’s 8 percent and McCain’s 4 in New Jersey. He also won 51 percent of the Latino vote, compared with 32 percent in his 2009 victory.
With the elections over, the focus has now shifted to Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal is still embroiled in a legal battle with the Department of Justice to defend his successful education-scholarship program, which predominantly benefits poor African Americans.
“It shouldn’t matter what race you are,” Governor Jindal told me when I asked him about his school-choice program. “I just want all of these kids to have the same opportunity and choice as others.” He said that while 90 percent of the people helped by the scholarship program are minorities, 100 percent are low-income, and many are stuck in failing schools. “Look, these kids only have one education, so they should at least have the opportunity for a good one,” he said.
In Louisiana, Obama’s DOJ stands against the 85 percent of African-Americans who call for greater school choice, promoted by Governor Jindal in 2008 through his scholarship program. The DOJ has fought this successful program, first seeking an injunction and now attempting to limit it through regulation. In a state where 93 percent of black votes went to Obama in 2012, this issue offers a chance for Republicans to woo minorities away from their traditional party line.
“Let’s be clear what happened,” Jindal told me. “They stopped the injunction, and I’m happy about that, but they’ve left the door open to attack it with red tape.” When I asked whether the governor thought this issue could influence future elections, he said, “Democrats are so beholden to the teachers’ unions that they’re stuck in an old approach to education. . . . Conservative policies help everyone, and this issue is a chance for conservatives to show that our policies are for 100 percent of Americans, not just a few.”
The RNC has been trying to exploit the Democrats’ opposition to this program, deeply popular among blacks, and make inroads with the black community in Louisiana on a grassroots level. On November 13, RNC chairman Reince Priebus published an op-ed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune arguing for school choice, a day before meeting with black business and community leaders at a closed roundtable discussion where he listened to community concerns and made brief remarks. Priebus also traveled to Detroit on November 11 to make a similar approach, talking with the black community about how to get Detroit back on its feet.
“I think most people were receptive, and they appreciated that the chairman showed up,” Watson says. “I’m just not sure the last time Debbie Wasserman Schultz was in Detroit talking with the black community, but we were there. I think that was appreciated.”
When I asked Watson where the RNC plans to expand the Growth & Opportunity Project next, he told me to “stay tuned,” because Louisiana and Detroit are “just a taste of what’s to come.” “We’re looking ahead to the next year as well,” he added. “With Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, we’re going to be busy, and we’re going to be present.”
With the 2014 elections on the horizon and even 2016 on people’s minds, Republicans are already working to make up for past failings. Having lost the minority vote by significant margins in every recent election cycle, the GOP has a lot of work to do. Nonetheless, Watson remains optimistic. “This is almost unprecedented in that the party is doing this stuff now and investing the amount of resources in minority communities that they are now, well ahead of any sort of election,” he said.
And the plan does not end in 2016. “We’re building a permanent infrastructure that lasts beyond election cycles because everyone deserves political parties competing for their vote,” Watson said. “Every vote counts, and we’re going to compete.”
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.