When Michael Varner attended historically black Howard University, he tried his best to rejuvenate Howard's chapter of the College Republicans, but he was a party of one. He debated politics with his mostly African-American and Democratic classmates, candidly discussing his views on personal responsibility and limited government as reasons for aligning himself politically with the GOP.
By the time he graduated this May, Varner was still the sole member of the College Republicans, having learned that it's "almost taboo" in the black community to be a Republican. "There's almost a stigma attached to the name," he says. "It was very frustrating for me."
Even after his hard work at Howard promoting the GOP, Varner finds himself undecided in the race between Republican John McCain and the first African-American presumptive nominee from a major party, Democrat Barack Obama. Varner wants to see the two men debate. He wants to better understand what kind of change Obama can bring. And then, he says, he'll decide. "I think they both have their strong points, and they both have their points where I can wait and see," says Varner.
This recent college grad isn't alone. More well-known black Republicans have also said they are at least considering Obama, including conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Former Republican Rep. J. C. Watts received attention when he told reporters he was contemplating an Obama vote. "I'm a free agent," says Watts, who is one of the only two black Republicans to serve in the House of Representatives since the 1930s. "I wouldn't just vote for a Republican candidate just because they are Republican, no more than I would vote for a black candidate just because they're black." For Watts it's not the historical nature of the race that leaves him undecided, it's frustration toward his own party. "African-American Republicans in the faith community are the most forgotten demographic in the Republican Party," Watts says. And he hopes the GOP will allot more resources toward attracting black voters.
Watts and others argue that the GOP hasn't done a good job bringing African Americans into the ranks of the party. "It's an astonishing record of deliberate failure, which has been carried over by John McCain this season," says Lee A. Daniels, author of a new book, Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. "None of the primary candidates had anything to say with issues of any concern to blacks as a group."
This perceived failure has been reflected at the polls. In 2004, George W. Bush attracted 11 percent of the black vote, up from the 9 percent he garnered in 2000. In 1996, Bob Dole, running against the nation's so-called "first black president," Bill Clinton, received 12 percent. And now with Obama in the picture, more conservative blacks may feel compelled to join the heftier group of black voters who support the Democrat.
"They're practical if nothing else, and they want to see a black president," Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, says of black Republican voters. "The historical factor is going to overrun some of the other considerations." In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 7 percent of the surveyed African-American adults supported McCain, while 90 percent supported Obama.
Despite the high support for Obama, there are some who are encouraging members of the black community to consider the GOP. One is Frances Rice, chairman of the National Black Republican Association. She paints a very different historical picture than most African-Americans, pointing to what she says is the Democrats' racist past. She brings up Democrats who fought to keep blacks enslaved and those who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. "The Republican Party has been the champion of freedom and civil rights for blacks," she says. And the Democrats? "Their goal is to keep blacks in poverty and the Republicans out of power," Rice says.
However, Daniels says that after Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Democrats have been the ones who have talked about the issues, such as poverty, that are important to African-Americans. "In terms of black people, people say the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have taken blacks for granted, but it's the Republican Party that takes blacks for granted," Daniels says.