Republicans ramp up their minority outreach

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In the wake of a 2012 election in which about 80 percent of non-white Americans voted against them, Republicans this year promised they would make greater efforts to appeal to minority voters, even releasing a long report detailing their strategy to do so.

And Republicans are now implementing one of the first planks of their new approach. Borrowing from the tactics of the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns, which created a network of offices and aides in each state to build long-term relationships with communities and voters, the Republican National Committee over the last month has hired more than a dozen staffers who are specifically focused on outreach to minority voters in key states to prepare for both the 2014 and 2016 elections.

On a trip to Detroit this week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus announced the hiring of conservative talk show host Wayne Bradley as the “director of African-American engagement” for the Republican Party in Michigan. In Charlotte, Republicans have opened an “African-American engagement office” with three aides who are supposed to reach out to black churches and other organizations and build the party’s brand in that state.  GOP officials say they have hired a staffer for black outreach in Louisiana as well and plan to tap others in states with large black populations over the next year.

Republicans also have hired staffers in California, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia to set up similar operations to reach Hispanic voters.

“We want to have a coast-to-coast granular party in communities across America like Detroit. Be there, stay there and get community leaders from the community of which we want to influence, but never go away,” Priebus told reporters in Detroit, according to the Detroit News.

How big of an impact outreach staff can have is an open question. The Republican Party had a bit of a test run of this new approach during last week’s gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. The RNC set up offices in Paterson and Vineland, two small cities in New Jersey, dedicated to reaching Hispanic voters to help the campaign of Gov. Chris Christie, as well as some aides who worked on outreach to black voters.

In addition, in Virginia, the RNC had four staffers who worked on outreach to Asian-American voters, two staffers for African-Americans and one for Hispanics. (The campaign of Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, thought there was a strong chance he could make gains with Asian voters, party officials told me.)

Exit polls showed that Christie performed very well among black and Hispanic voters for a Republican candidate, while Ken Cuccinelli lost among blacks by a huge margin, as Mitt Romney did last year. (Exit poll results in Virginia did not detail how the Republican did among Asian or Latino voters.) The results suggested the obvious conclusion: the quality of the candidate and his opponent will always be more important than any outreach strategy, and Christie was far more popular with all voters, including minorities, than Cuccinelli.

And Republicans face must overcome strong skepticism about the party’s history and motives, particularly from African-Americans. In an interview  about the GOP hires in North Carolina, a reporter from Qcitymetro.com, a website in the Charlotte area that focuses on African-American issues, bluntly asked an RNC staffer, “Can the GOP succeed while there is a widespread belief in the black community that certain elements within the party are racist?”

“What we’re hearing from black voters and people within our community is that it’s the president’s economic policies that are hurting them the most,” replied Orlando Watson,who runs the RNC’s outreach to black media.

Priebus and other Republicans readily concede the obvious challenges with winning over large numbers of minority voters. Simply opening the offices helps address one problem: the perception from some voters that Republicans are comfortable as a party dominated by bloc of older and mostly white voters. Changing that perception could help the GOP not only with minorities, but white voters who don’t want to back a party that they feel isn’t in touch with today’s increasingly diverse America.

At the same time, the RNC has little control of how the Republican candidates and officeholders talk about immigration, the health care law, voter ID provisions and other controversial issues that also shape how minority voters (and voters overall) decide which candidates to support.