By JESSE J. HOLLAND
2014-06-09 10:22 PM
SMYRNA, Georgia (AP) -- Black Republicans who are recruiting voters and candidates say there are plenty of black conservatives out there. They just don't want to be identified publicly as conservative or Republican.
That's just one of numerous challenges Republican face in an effort to recruit African-American voters in pivotal states, a priority for a heavily white party staring with uncertainty at an America that is fast becoming more brown.
The drive for diversity won't be easy. African-Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, the party that integrated the military, ended legal discrimination in the South and more recently gave rise to the first black president, Barack Obama.
Black Republicans cringe when they hear vitriol from conservatives directed at Obama, or negative comments about black people coming from far-right extremists. The challenge is to assure African-Americans who may lean conservative that they can publicly identify with the Republican party without hurting their standing in the black community.
Republicans have little choice but to try to get African-Americans and other minority voters on board, in part because they face a demographic dilemma. Birth rates among whites are shrinking in the U.S.; racial and ethnic minorities are expected to make up a majority of Americans within about 30 years. The number of African-American voters has increased steadily: 12.9 million in 2000, 14 million in 2004, 16 million in 2008 and 17.8 million in 2012.
In 2012, blacks for the first time voted at a higher rate, 66.2 percent, than did whites, with a rate of 64.1 percent. Asian-Americans and Hispanics, the fastest growing U.S. demographic groups, voted at rates of only about 48 percent each.
Few of those black voters went for Republican candidates. Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the networks showed that only about 6 percent identified themselves as Republican voters in 2004, and 4 percent did so in 2008 and 2012.
African-Americans once preferred the Republican Party, after President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the 1860s, and Republicans now say they wants those votes back. It is spending $60 million to court black voters, and a new initiative aims to recruit 300 women and 200 minorities to run for state and local office.
Black voters turned Democratic and pretty much stayed that way after World War II, as Democratic Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson integrated the military and the federal government, dismantled state-sanctioned segregation and reinforced blacks' voting rights. Johnson famously and correctly predicted that many Southern whites would then leave the Democratic Party. With their departure came racial rhetoric that created a chasm between Republicans and African-American voters, said Fredrick C. Harris, professor of political science at Columbia University.
Republicans started "playing on the politics of race and racism in order to curry favor on the right, and African Americans saw this and voted in their interests," Harris said.
Harris said that many African-American voters align best with the Republican Party on social issues -- abortion, same-sex marriage, prayer in schools -- but diverge when it comes to the federal government's role in protecting civil rights and providing a social safety net. With black voters, "economic issues always trump social issues," Harris said.
In a meeting last month with African-American journalists, Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, acknowledged the party faces difficulties in wooing blacks but said black voters may find some of the party's ideas appealing, if they give it a fair hearing.
"And we're learning, we're stumbling," Ryan said. "I'm going to be clumsy on this; I already have been, and I'm going to be, because we're trying to break barriers that have existed for many years."
The party is starting up College Republican chapters at historically black schools such as Morehouse College in Atlanta and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. And on Friday, Koch Industries Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation -- run by the billionaire Koch brothers, patrons of libertarian and conservative causes -- announced a $25 million grant to the United Negro College Fund, which offers financial aid to students at black colleges and universities.
At least one embattled Republican is enjoying a little support from African-Americans. Some black voters in Mississippi said they crossed party lines to vote in the Republican Senate primary last Tuesday for six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in his battle against a challenger who enjoys support from the conservative, limited-government tea party movement.
As long as such hardline conservative movements continue to hold sway over the Republican Party, attracting black voters going to be a challenge, expert say.
"Until they can rid themselves of the factions such as the tea party, it's going to be extremely difficult to combat that kind of rhetoric to the extent that they will be able to attract African Americans to the party," said D'Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
Associated Press reporter Kimberly Hefling and Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Jesse J. Holland on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland