Are black conservatives making a comeback? And can the new class of black Republicans bring more African-Americans to the Republican Party?
Allen West (Florida) and Tim Scott (South Carolina) have emerged as influential figures in the House of Representatives. Former Rep. J.C. Watts (Oklahoma) is a vocal supporter of former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
Herman Cain briefly led in the polls in the GOP presidential race, and Jennifer Carroll, Florida’s lieutenant governor, is the first black elected statewide in the Sunshine State.
To be sure,the GOP— responsible for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Freedmen’s Bureau and once boasting over 1,500 black elected officials — remains a predominantly white and hardline conservative party with few white moderates and Latinos and even fewer blacks.
Exit polls in the recent GOP primary in Florida, one of the most important states in a presidential election, showed only 1 percent of the voters were African-American.
And some of the conservative blacks are struggling on the national stage. Cain — while earning “flavor-of-the-week” status during his White House bid — fizzled when faced with personal scandal. Black Tea Party darling, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, agreed with Gingrich that black people lack a work ethic, and stated that black people should be “put on the plantation.”
Anti-affirmative action crusader and former California regent Ward Connerly faces an IRS investigation, as a former employee has accused him of financial impropriety. And Carroll offended the civil rights community when she said she “can’t think of anybody currently in my life right now that more epitomizes the values and the vision of Dr. King than Gov. Rick Scott.”
Scott is viewed as a highly unpopular and divisive governor and was elected with a mere 3 percent of the black vote.
In many ways, the years since President Obama was elected has inspired a resurgence of black conservatism. Its first stage was in 2009, when the GOP chose a black chairman to attempt to show it cared about diversity in the Age of Obama.
Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and the first African-American elected to statewide office there, did not walk or talk like your typical Republican.
And he came to the job with a plan to shake up the party with outreach to the black and Hispanic communities. Steele criticized the Republicans for its racial insensitivity and for alienating black voters with a 40-year Southern Strategy:
We have lost sight of the historic, integral link between the party and African-Americans. This party was co-founded by blacks, among them Frederick Douglass. The Republican Party had a hand in forming the NAACP, and yet we have mistreated that relationship. People don’t walk away from parties. Their parties walk away from them.
But ultimately, Steele came under fire within the GOP ranks following accusations of misspending in the RNC, and for speaking ill of Rush Limbaugh. He was rejected by the Republican establishment, and is now an MSNBC analyst with limited influence in the party.
“When Steele took over, the Republicans had their head in the sand,” said Robert Traynham, a former top GOP staffer on Capitol Hill who is now a frequent columnist for theGrio. “Say what you want about Michael Steele’s tenure, he was not afraid to go to communities of color and present an alternative message.”
Scott and West have taken a different path, and their success, while Steele struggled, may show the future of blacks in the GOP. Specifically, the kind of black conservatives the Republican Party has embraced — in the mold of Tea Party congressmen West and Scott — appeal to a white conservative electorate. Therefore, they are likely unable to expand the party and convince more blacks to vote Republican.
And the GOP’s increased advocacy of bills that would require a photo identification to vote could further hurt the party’s appeal to African-Americans. Many civil rights groups argue these provisions are intended to limit the voting of blacks, who are less likely than other groups to have such IDs.
“It’s bigger than Newt Gingrich mouthing off that Barack Obama is ‘the best food stamp president in American history.’ On matters of race, black folks don’t trust Republicans,” said Faye Anderson, who is a member of the Election Protection Coalition, a group that opposes the voter ID laws.
She added, “as Republican-controlled legislatures push voting changes that restrict the right to vote, they are further sowing seeds of distrust.”
Overall, Traynham says that while the GOP is on the right track, the short-term success of any Republican outreach efforts to black voters depends on the look and tone of the Republican presidential ticket.
“I think the Republican Party is on that road and it is a long, long journey. I think it depends on who the nominee is. Take a look at Mitt Romney, who doesn’t have the fiery rhetoric. But if you go down the road of a Newt Gingrich or a Ron Paul… ,” said Traynham.
He said the “extremely accomplished” Condoleezza Rice would be a perfect vice presidential choice — albeit with much baggage as a former Bush administration official.
The party’s broader appeal to blacks will also depend on the kind of people who eventually become the defining figures of black conservatism, Traynham said.
“It depends on who has the most credibility in the black community,” Traynham says. “J.C. Watts has more credibility in the black community than Herman Cain. Cain embarrassed himself on the campaign trail and [the ‘cornbread’ comments] sounded offensive. I know he said them in humor, but many African-Americans were offended.”
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove