Is the GOP Wasting Its Time Courting Black Voters in Illinois?

Republican Bruce Rauner is aggressively courting black voters in his bid to be governor. If he succeeds, his outreach will be the model for the entire party.

Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner chats with Rev. Joseph Davis (left) and Rev. Corey Brooks (right).
National Journal
Oct. 28, 2014, 4:09 p.m.

CHICA­GO—It’s just days be­fore a heated elec­tion to de­term­ine Illinois’ next gov­ernor, and Re­pub­lic­an Bruce Rau­ner is in Chica­go’s South Side. He wants to know what is­sues mat­ter to a con­victed felon who served 22 years for laun­der­ing drug money.

They’re at Fleck’s Cof­fee, a year-old busi­ness in the work­ing-class Chath­am neigh­bor­hood, just blocks from where some of the worst vi­ol­ence in the city has taken place. Rau­ner listens as Joseph Dav­is, who runs an or­gan­iz­a­tion that helps former felons find work, and a group of black min­is­ters—many of whom have en­dorsed the Re­pub­lic­an—talk about crime, drug sen­ten­cing, and chal­lenges for black-owned busi­nesses.

The 57-year-old ven­ture cap­it­al­ist doesn’t look out of place. But he isn’t in his ele­ment either. He nods his head when Dav­is ar­gues that felons need a chance to “rees­tab­lish them­selves” when they get out of jail. Dav­is entered the meet­ing un­de­cided, but said he left as a sup­port­er of Rau­ner’s.

When the Rev. Corey Brooks, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pas­tor who en­dorsed Rau­ner, ex­presses con­cern about rampant un­em­ploy­ment in Chica­go, Rau­ner sounds an em­path­et­ic note: “I don’t see enough stores and busi­nesses owned by Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. There’s a lack of eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity and a lack of eco­nom­ic em­power­ment,” he replies. For the most part, Rau­ner listens, and speaks in care­fully prac­ticed sound bites.

“Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies today are suf­fer­ing ter­ribly with un­em­ploy­ment, poverty, crime, low wages, lousy schools, shred­ding so­cial ser­vices. [Gov. Pat Quinn has] failed the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity, yet he’s taken their vote for gran­ted,” Rau­ner tells me after the break­fast meet­ing. “He’s as­sum­ing Afric­an Amer­ic­ans are vot­ing for him even though he doesn’t de­serve to get their vote.”

It’s part of an un­con­ven­tion­al strategy for Rau­ner, a bil­lion­aire ven­ture cap­it­al­ist who is spend­ing time in an over­whelm­ingly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity that gave nearly un­an­im­ous sup­port to Pres­id­ent Obama and in­stinct­ively votes Demo­crat­ic. Sev­er­al pro­spect­ive Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, in­clud­ing Paul Ry­an and Rand Paul, have en­gaged in minor­ity out­reach, but it has been rare for top Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates to make it such a prom­in­ent part of their strategy in the fi­nal stage of an ac­tu­al cam­paign.

Rau­ner is do­ing just that. Locked in a tight race with a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Rau­ner’s cam­paign is con­vinced that if he can get about 15 per­cent of a usu­ally-mono­lith­ic black vote, he’s got the elec­tion locked up. “Pat Quinn is tak­ing the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an vote for gran­ted. He’s talk­ing, but he’s not de­liv­er­ing res­ults!” he thundered at a de­bate that night co­sponsored by the Chica­go Urb­an League.

Rau­ner used the op­por­tun­ity to tout the en­dorse­ment he re­ceived from the black min­is­ters he’d met in the morn­ing, while out­side the de­bate hall dozens of Rau­ner’s Afric­an-Amer­ic­an sup­port­ers, brought in by the cam­paign, shouted epi­thets at Quinn.

“I’ve been a Demo­crat all my life,” says Dav­is, now in his 60s, wear­ing a grey suit with a cru­ci­fix lapel pin. “I found out that just be­ing a Demo­crat is not enough. I’m for who­ever’s go­ing to help the com­munity.” He ad­ded: “Demo­crats have be­come so ar­rog­ant that they think they’re the heir to black votes. We’re not your chil­dren.”

Demo­crats are per­plexed by Rau­ner’s strategy, as­sum­ing it’s as much a play to win over mod­er­ate sub­urb­an white voters as it is to ac­tu­ally win over black votes. Even one in-state Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive wondered why Rau­ner was spend­ing valu­able Oc­to­ber cam­paign time in over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic pre­cincts, giv­en that he needs to win over un­de­cided sub­urb­an­ites in more polit­ic­ally-com­pet­it­ive ter­rit­ory.

“What Rau­ner is try­ing to do is tak­ing a 90-10 elect­or­ate, and mak­ing it 88-12,” said a former ad­viser to Rahm Emanuel about the Re­pub­lic­an’s fo­cus on black voters. “That’s a waste of your time when there’s a 60-40 [sub­urb­an] elect­or­ate that you can make 50-50.”

In the three days I spent with his cam­paign in mid-Oc­to­ber, the cam­paign stops Rau­ner made were all in minor­ity areas of Chica­go—the cof­fee shop on the South Side, a café on the city’s heav­ily-His­pan­ic West Side, and at a pop­u­lar Chinese res­taur­ant in Chin­atown. The vast ma­jor­ity of voters who at­ten­ded the events were small busi­ness own­ers and re­li­gious lead­ers—two pro­fes­sions where Re­pub­lic­ans per­form well with white voters but still lag badly with minor­it­ies.

“Many Demo­crat­ic politi­cians take the Latino vote for gran­ted. They talk about Latino is­sues but they don’t change any­thing for Latino fam­il­ies. And they don’t cre­ate the real op­por­tun­ity for the Amer­ic­an dream. We’re go­ing to change that,” Rau­ner said while cam­paign­ing at La Cated­ral Café on Chica­go’s West Side. He of­fers an en­tre­pren­eur­i­al mes­sage fo­cused on eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity and edu­ca­tion re­form—that with hard work and a help­ing hand, any­one can suc­ceed—sprinkled with sharp cri­ti­cism of Gov. Quinn for the in­si­di­ously high un­em­ploy­ment rate in the minor­ity com­munit­ies throughout Illinois.

Tony Hu, the own­er of the pop­u­lar Lao Shang­hai res­taur­ant in Chica­go’s Chin­atown, said the Re­pub­lic­ans’ last gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee, con­ser­vat­ive state Sen. Bill Brady, made a last-minute vis­it to his res­taur­ant in 2010 ask­ing for his vote, but nev­er en­gaged in any pri­or out­reach to him or the Chinese-Amer­ic­an com­munity in Chica­go. Rau­ner, by con­trast, schmoozed with him when they were both part of a 2011 trade del­eg­a­tion (that in­cluded then-May­or Richard Da­ley), and forged a re­la­tion­ship. Rau­ner kept in touch after the trip, oc­ca­sion­ally vis­it­ing the res­taur­ant with his fam­ily. Hu said that past en­gage­ment played a pivotal role in his sup­port and ad­vocacy for Rau­ner’s cam­paign.

“Bruce has roots with us. I’m not a polit­ic­al per­son, I’m a com­munity ser­vant. But I look at someone’s past. He has the abil­ity. Look at his back­ground. And vis­ion,” Hu said. “We don’t care about Demo­crats or Re­pub­lic­ans. We care about who has abil­ity. Bruce, he has abil­ity.”

HIGH STAKES IN ILLINOIS

Even though it hasn’t garnered a level of na­tion­al at­ten­tion on par with battle­ground Sen­ate elec­tions, the Illinois gov­ernor’s race is as con­sequen­tial a con­test for Re­pub­lic­ans as any oth­er in the coun­try. It’s something of a polit­ic­al sci­ence ex­per­i­ment, test­ing wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans have a chance to make even small in­roads with minor­ity com­munit­ies.

On pa­per, Rau­ner is an ap­peal­ing Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for such a mis­sion. He has a long re­cord of phil­an­thropy to minor­ity com­munit­ies, even be­fore he began his second ca­reer in polit­ics. He was the main donor for sev­er­al urb­an re­new­al pro­jects, in­clud­ing a YMCA in the ma­jor­ity-His­pan­ic Little Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood and six new charter schools on the city’s West Side. His work in edu­ca­tion-re­form circles has opened up a part­ner­ship with lead­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity lead­ers and clergy that he’s util­ized in the gubernat­ori­al cam­paign. He’s a friend of the Rev. James Meeks, min­is­ter at Salem Baptist Church, one of the largest black churches in the city. They’ve gone fly-fish­ing to­geth­er on va­ca­tion. He talks about his en­dow­ment of a pro­fess­or­ship at his­tor­ic­ally black More­house Col­lege. He tapped a Lat­ina run­ning mate, at­tor­ney Evelyn San­guinetti, whose ex­per­i­ence as a first-gen­er­a­tion im­mig­rant is a story he high­lights when speak­ing to His­pan­ic groups.

“Our out­reach ef­fort has been like no oth­er. Busi­nesses of every kind are suf­fer­ing. So we’re reach­ing out to Lati­nos, to the In­di­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies, the Pol­ish com­munity, the Rus­si­an com­munit­ies,” said San­guinetti. “As Re­pub­lic­ans, the mes­saging is out there now. Be­fore, I be­lieve we had prob­lems with mes­saging. But that’s no longer the case. The party has a face-lift.”

Last Sunday, Rau­ner even spent the second-to-last week­end on the trail at the New Be­gin­nings Church of Christ on Chica­go’s South Side. “Our Lord God has not put us on this Earth as Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans,” he told the con­greg­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press. “He put us on this Earth to take care of each oth­er.”

Mean­while, he’s run­ning against one of the least pop­u­lar gov­ernors in the coun­try, who has presided over a state with un­em­ploy­ment rates among minor­ity com­munit­ies well above the na­tion­al av­er­age. Bill Brady, Quinn’s last Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, won just 6 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters and 26 per­cent of His­pan­ics in the last gubernat­ori­al elec­tion. Quinn won the race by a 32,000-vote mar­gin out of 3.4 mil­lion votes. This year’s race is shap­ing up to be as com­pet­it­ive.

One of Rau­ner’s ads, spe­cific­ally aimed at the black com­munity, fea­tures foot­age of former Chica­go May­or Har­old Wash­ing­ton in 1987, say­ing he re­gret­ted hir­ing Quinn as the city’s rev­en­ue dir­ect­or. “He was dis­missed and he should’ve been dis­missed,” said Wash­ing­ton, who was the city’s first black may­or. “My only re­gret is that we hired him and kept him too long.”

Quinn’s cam­paign has been bludgeon­ing Rau­ner on the air­waves, por­tray­ing him as a vul­ture cap­it­al­ist who laid off work­ers and shipped jobs over­seas, and even un­leashed al­leg­a­tions that he threatened a fe­male man­ager be­cause she de­clined to lay off em­ploy­ees.

That Demo­crat­ic as­sault might be work­ing. Talk to strategists with both cam­paigns, and Rau­ner hasn’t made the gains with minor­ity voters that he ex­pec­ted, des­pite his ef­fort. He’s fa­cing a chal­lenge hit­ting 10 per­cent sup­port among black voters, and isn’t im­prov­ing much on Brady’s His­pan­ic per­form­ance, either. In fact, the Chica­go Tribune poll re­leased last week has him win­ning only 3 per­cent of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an vote, just half of Brady’s show­ing in 2010.

“He’ll be lucky to get what Brady got,” said Quinn poll­ster Mark Mell­man. “Across the state, in­clud­ing the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies, [people] see him for what he is—a guy who makes him­self rich in shady busi­ness deals at the ex­pense of every­one else. That’s not what people want in a gov­ernor.”

A SUB­URB­AN AUDI­ENCE

Even Re­pub­lic­ans work­ing for Rau­ner privately ac­know­ledged that des­pite their can­did­ate’s op­tim­ism, they’re not go­ing to re­shape long-stand­ing vot­ing pat­terns that have con­signed Re­pub­lic­ans to a sliv­er of the black vote. His cam­paign has set a goal of win­ning 20 per­cent of the vote in Chica­go, something that can be ac­com­plished with only small in­roads among minor­ity voters. But they also hope that by high­light­ing Rau­ner’s minor­ity out­reach, he’ll im­prove his show­ing among softer Re­pub­lic­an voters—like mar­ried wo­men in the sub­urbs and mod­er­ates. The Chica­go Tribune poll, which showed Rau­ner nar­rowly ahead, re­por­ted that his gains had “been driv­en primar­ily by white sub­urb­an wo­men, a vot­ing bloc con­sidered so­cially mod­er­ate but fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive.”

In­deed, Rau­ner is part of a lead­ing wave of can­did­ates who are be­gin­ning to en­gage in minor­ity out­reach, even if it doesn’t render im­me­di­ate polit­ic­al di­vidends. Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man Re­ince Priebus has pri­or­it­ized minor­ity out­reach in the run-up to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, and has opened field of­fices meant to reach Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters in Ohio, North Car­o­lina, Michigan, and Flor­ida.

In Louisi­ana, Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ate Bill Cas­sidy has dis­cussed his work as cofounder of free dent­al and health care clin­ics for the un­in­sured—many in heav­ily black neigh­bor­hoods. Cut­ting in­to Sen. Mary Landrieu’s huge sup­port with­in the black com­munity would be dev­ast­at­ing to her already tenu­ous reelec­tion hopes. Early in the cycle, Sen. Marco Ru­bio’s polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee aired Span­ish-lan­guage ads in sup­port of Re­pub­lic­an Cory Gard­ner in the Col­or­ado Sen­ate race. Rep­res­ent­ing a swing seat, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mike Coff­man has be­come om­ni­present throughout his cos­mo­pol­it­an sub­urb­an Den­ver dis­trict, from Korean com­munity meet­ings to His­pan­ic gro­cer­ies.

“When I worked for Rudy Gi­uliani, we re­cog­nized we nev­er were go­ing to get the votes from the Domin­ic­an com­munity, but we did that out­reach be­cause it was im­port­ant to do. Do­ing well while do­ing good. It’s the mod­el that Rau­ner’s picked up,” said Re­pub­lic­an me­dia strategist Rick Wilson, who cited the former New York City may­or as one of sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans to ag­gress­ively en­gage in minor­ity out­reach in the late stages of a cam­paign. “You know [they] may not vote for us, but it shows we’re listen­ing. It doesn’t cost you much to see you’re on a long march.”

Quinn isn’t tak­ing the threat against his base lightly. Pres­id­ent Obama head­lined a mid-Oc­to­ber cam­paign rally in Illinois earli­er this month at Chica­go State Uni­versity, de­signed to bring black voters to the polls for the gov­ernor. “You got to find cous­in Pook­ie. He’s sit­ting on the couch right now watch­ing foot­ball—hasn’t voted in the last five elec­tions. You’ve got to grab him and tell him to go vote”¦ And then tell them to vote for Pat Quinn,” Obama said. Obama’s num­bers are barely above wa­ter even in his home state, but he’s still an ef­fect­ive sur­rog­ate for turn­ing out Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters.

For Re­pub­lic­ans, the out­reach to minor­it­ies is as much out of ne­ces­sity as it is out of be­ne­fi­cence. Mitt Rom­ney scored an his­tor­ic high for a GOP pres­id­en­tial chal­lenger by win­ning 59 per­cent of the white vote in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, but his dis­mal show­ing among minor­it­ies re­leg­ated him to just 47 per­cent of the over­all vote. With the share of minor­ity voters in­creas­ing over time, Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials re­cog­nize they are destined to struggle un­less they can make real in­roads in­to com­munit­ies that don’t tra­di­tion­ally vote for them.

At the same time, if Re­pub­lic­ans are able to take even a small bit of con­stitu­ent groups that are over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic, it could be the basis for a longer-term win­ning co­ali­tion. Demo­crat­ic struggles with work­ing-class white voters have cratered in the second term of Obama’s pres­id­ency, and have giv­en Re­pub­lic­ans an open­ing to win over dis­af­fected voters who don’t usu­ally vote for their party.

“We need to po­s­i­tion the black com­munity to take ad­vant­age of the op­por­tun­it­ies that will emerge as Re­pub­lic­ans will need to broaden their ap­peal,” said the Rev. Mar­shall Hatch, a friend of Al Sharpton’s, who reg­u­larly votes for Demo­crats but is back­ing Rau­ner in this elec­tion. “Illinois has be­come like a one-party state, and it’s not healthy. We need to be more soph­ist­ic­ated in our polit­ics. We can’t be ef­fect­ive if we’re in the hip pock­et of one party.”

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