The most important political event on a busy Wednesday in Washington wasn’t the long-awaited release of President Obama’s budget. It wasn’t even the bipartisan Senate compromise on gun control between Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey. It was Rand Paul’s gutsy speech at Howard University making a pitch to a skeptical African-American audience for why they should consider supporting the Republican Party. He was the first Republican politician to speak there since Colin Powell in 1994, according to school officials, and stayed to answer questions after his prepared remarks.
Paul’s speech was part history, noting the GOP’s connections to the civil-rights movement, and part policy, arguing that the party’s positions on school choice, support of free markets, and lower taxes offer African-American voters a better path forward. He also inserted two of his pet issues not embraced by his party’s leadership—drug-law liberalization and less overseas military intervention—as a way to reach out. He received a lukewarm reception at best, with his speech interrupted by protesters and hostile questioning. Already the takeaway from some news outlets is that Paul reiterated support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, illustrating how politically risky such diplomacy entails.
But the speech itself is a necessary test for the latest Republican proposition: that the first, necessary step to win over minorities is not just through policy proposals, but merely by showing up to make a case. Despite the GOP’s relentless focus on immigration reform as a silver-bullet strategy to win over Hispanics, they may find that courting African-Americans would be an equally fruitful approach. With Latinos, some Republican groups have engaged in outreach, but with few results to show. With African-Americans, there has been virtually no effort.
On its face, that notion that Republicans could make inroads with black voters seems ludicrous. President Obama won black voters by an overwhelming 87-point margin over Mitt Romney. In the post-civil-rights era, Republicans have barely tried to compete for African-American support. The last time a Republican won more than 15 percent of the black vote was during Richard Nixon's candidacy in 1960.
Because the bar is so low, even small gains among African-Americans could yield impressive results in the future. The relevant question is whether it’s easier to win over a relatively low number of black voters, or winning support from a near-majority of Hispanics. If Romney received, say, 15 percent of the black vote in the 2012 presidential election, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia would likely have flipped to Republicans, putting Romney a hair away from the presidency.
Republicans have the ability to advance issues that could get a positive hearing. The economic downturn has disproportionately impacted minority communities for the worse. On education, conservative Republican governors have led the charge for school choice, allowing inner-city students stuck in failing schools to have options out. (Paul smartly name-checked the documentary Waiting for Superman in the education-reform portion of his speech.) Blacks are more socially conservative than the average Democrat, particularly on gay marriage.
And now Republicans can turn to several prominent black leaders to spread a conservative message. In July, the only African-American in the Senate will be a Republican, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. (Massachusetts Sen. Mo Cowan was appointed to fill John Kerry’s seat on an interim basis; a special election will be held June 25.) In Utah, Mia Love narrowly lost her bid for a House seat in 2012 and is preparing a political comeback. Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson has long been a role model to many African Americans—a movie was made about his life, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.—and his speech subtly rebuking Obama’s policies at the National Prayer Breakfast not only made him a conservative celebrity, but surely sparked conversation about his views within the African-American community.
To be sure, Republicans have a long way to go, even with renewed outreach. Like Hispanics, African-Americans are favorably disposed toward an active federal government—a position entirely at odds with the GOP’s latest focus on budget cuts and austerity. A number of Republican officials seemed as focused on tamping down black turnout in the last presidential election by proposing voting reforms requiring additional identification. Good policy or not, it’s not the type of priority that a party seeking to woo black voters would focus on. And Rand Paul's support of a filibuster against gun-control legislation isn't going to win him many black supporters.
But with Obama out of office in 2016, and a new crop of younger, more diverse Republican leaders emerging, Republicans have the opportunity to try to reverse their longstanding struggles with African-American voters. Paul should merely be the first in a long line of Republicans looking to reach out. Any progress is likely to be slow and politically risky, but the reward would be substantial.