After Mitt Romney received just 6 percent of the black vote in 2012, the Republican Party said that it could no longer afford to ignore African-Americans.
“We are never going to win over voters who are not asked for their support,” its leaders wrote in a candid election post-mortem.
Nearly two years later, the party is still struggling to connect. There is one black Republican in Congress, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Republicans in state legislatures nationwide continue to back bills to require people to have identification to cast a ballot, which black leaders have said amounts to legalized voter suppression.
So when Republicans ask blacks to give their party a second look, they have a hard time finding an audience. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky confronted this on Friday when he appeared at a highly publicized speech to the National Urban League Conference to see row after row of empty chairs. The space did not look much fuller after one of the organizers urged people seated near the back to fill in the front rows.
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He pushed forward, quoting Malcolm X: “Nobody can give you equality or justice. If you’re a man, you take it.” And he sounded empathetic as he described the arrests of three young black men as they waited for a bus. Their apparent crime, he said, was “waiting while black.” And he delicately acknowledged what was perhaps the biggest cloud hanging over his visit: his comments in 2010 in which he suggested that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encroached on individual liberties. He told the crowd he supported the law unequivocally.
The speech in Cincinnati was his latest before a mostly black crowd, and it was a demonstration of how Paul - however improbably - has become the only major figure in his party who seems eager to keep going back to African-Americans to appeal for support even if his approach unsettles some fellow Republicans.
Before speaking here to the Urban League, the senator was in the Capitol this week putting the finishing touches on a bill to purge the federal sentencing code of harsher sentences for crack cocaine offenses. He talked up his partnership on a bill to restore voting rights to some nonviolent felons with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader and a loathed figure among Republicans.
He has also partnered with Eric H. Holder Jr., the country’s first African-American attorney general and another Democrat reviled by the right, to work on a broad overhaul of federal drug sentencing policy. Paul and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., have proposed a variety of other criminal justice changes, including making it easier for people to have old criminal convictions sealed.
Republicans typically focus their appeal to black voters on two issues: poverty and education. Some Republicans, like Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have also embraced overhauling certain aspects of federal sentencing.
But what makes Paul’s approach unique is the broad array of sentencing and voting rights law changes he embraces, positions that often put him at odds with many in his own party.
Why so few other prominent Republicans are aggressively reaching out to blacks is perplexing to some in the party.
“I’m very disappointed that Rand Paul is having to be the bell cow for the Republican National Committee,” said J.C. Watts, the former Oklahoma representative who was one of just a handful of black Republicans to serve in Congress in modern times. “They talk about outreach, but I see very little that they’re doing.”
Referring to Paul’s approach, Watts added, “These are things that we should have been doing for the last 25 years.”
The Republican National Committee has begun trying to build a better outreach program. Its chairman, Reince Priebus, spoke at the same Urban League conference as Paul this week. It has opened two offices specifically for African-American engagement, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Detroit. The party has started building a file to identify black voters who might be persuaded to vote Republican. And it has hired a staff of roughly 15 people to lead black outreach.
To the extent that Paul’s support among black voters has been measured by polls, it shows ample room for improvement. When he ran for the Senate in 2010, exit polls showed that he received 13 percent of Kentucky’s black vote, which puts him near where many other Republican candidates have polled recently. Compared to other possible rivals for the 2016 Republican nomination, he is somewhere in the middle. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida got 4 percent of the black vote in 2010. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey received 21 percent.
A sizable portion of the black electorate seems to have no opinion of Paul yet, even as he crisscrosses the country courting their votes. Fox News asked black voters about him in April and found that 35 percent had never heard of him. Seventeen percent viewed him favorably 44 percent viewed him unfavorably.
“If you don’t ask for the sale, you don’t get it,” said Scott, the senator from South Carolina who said Paul had sought his advice. “And that’s true in politics.”
Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who was the first African-American to hold that position, said some of Paul’s greatest barriers to overcome will not be Democrats but Republicans.
“I applaud him for making it uncomfortable for the party,” Steele said. “And I suspect he’s going to make it even more uncomfortable. He should because how can you reconcile saying, ‘Black people, we want you in the party.’ Then party leaders back policy and legislation that alienates the black community.”
There is still a year and a half to go before the Republican Party begins holding its primaries. That has not only given Paul an advantage over other rivals inside the party, but puts him well ahead of where Romney was four years ago.
“Go back to 2012, and Mitt Romney showed up at the NAACP after he secured the nomination because he had to,” said Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist. She went on to describe her first encounter with Romney in 2012, an awkward one that, to her, summed up the party’s problems. “He came up to me and said, ‘Hi, Gwen,'” she recalled, meaning Gwen Ifill, the PBS journalist, who is also black. “Poor thing. He didn’t know.”
A spokeswoman for Romney did not return a message seeking comment.
Brazile and Paul have become friendly through encounters of their own in the green room at CNN, where Brazile is a contributor. She said she has grown to appreciate the broad array of issues he seems to grasp that are important to blacks.
“Everybody treats the black community as if we have to be told about food stamps and welfare,” she said. “That’s talking to us as if it’s 1964. And I think Rand Paul understands that.”