A courtship worth watching
Conservatives come calling, and blacks may be listening this time
What has new Republican Party Chair Ken Mehlman learned so far in his fledgling campaign to woo African-American voters? "Folks who don't necessarily agree with you appreciate that you're out there making the case," he tells U.S. News . In the past month, Mehlman has hosted town hall meetings with black audiences in Maryland and New Jersey, sat for a PBS television interview with African-American talk-show host Tavis Smiley, and traveled to Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Center. "It's about building relationships," says Mehlman, the high-octane former campaign manager who helped engineer President Bush's victory last fall. "I don't go out and lecture. I listen and learn."
Mehlman has his work cut out. Blacks have long been the Democrats' most dependable voting bloc, backing John Kerry over Bush by nearly 9 to 1. "Republicans . . . are a group who opposed the civil rights movement and who African-Americans trust least," says David Bositis, political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The GOP is "talking optimistically about something on which there's been no success in 40 years."
But at the moment, Mehlman isn't the only optimist. Black conservatives--and disaffected black Democrats--are preparing a major push to convince African-Americans, first, that they've been taken for granted by Democrats and, second, that the Republican Party might be worth another look, especially if the GOP more directly addresses issues of concern to blacks. It's an effort that Republicans have made before--but this time, partisans on both sides believe it could pay real dividends.
The initiatives have sprung in part from President Bush's modest gains among black voters. Though Bush garnered just 11 percent of the black vote last year, that was a 2-point jump from 2000. And in some key states, Bush made bigger gains: from 9 to 16 percent in Ohio and from 7 to 13 percent in Florida. With most African-Americans identifying as churchgoers, some pastors say a new emphasis on "family values," especially opposition to same-sex marriage, is responsible for the shift. Bishop Harry Jackson, a Maryland pastor and registered Democrat, who voted against Bush in 2000 but supported him last year, is leading an effort called the "Black Contract With America on Moral Values." The contract includes pledges to "protect marriages" and "eliminate abortion." Jackson is circulating the document among black clergy through a series of six summits across the country. Jackson hopes to collect a million signatures and says he's in preliminary talks with the White House: "We're dating, and there's tremendous attraction, but we're not married yet."
A conservative black group, the Mayflower Compact Coalition, will also begin collecting signatures next week for its "21st Century Mayflower Compact," a nine-point agenda for black America that includes support for school choice and private Social Security accounts. "We recognize the achievements of the civil rights movement," says Oliver Kellman, the group's chairman. "But we need a civil responsibilities movement." Advised in part by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's consulting firm, Mayflower is planning town hall meetings in up to 20 states--with the emphasis on battlegrounds where black support for Republicans could make a difference, like Pennsylvania and Michigan. The group will publicize the events via black media and churches, being careful to "push this as an issue-driven initiative, not a party-type initiative," says Kellman.
Warning. That may be a challenge, given the players involved. But Mehlman's efforts, at least, were lent credibility in a recent column by black Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "Democrats should stop ignoring that Republicans are going after their most loyal base," Brazile tells U.S. News, adding that Democrats "are in the Stone Age when it comes to African-American outreach."
Republicans face their own obstacles. Jackson, who is pro-affirmative action and wants to reform "three strikes" sentencing laws, says turning black churchgoers into conservative "values" voters can happen only if the Christian right and the GOP take up issues of importance to blacks that have long been the province of Democrats. "Republicans think morality is only the life and marriage issue," says former Republican Rep. J. C. Watts, who is black. "But racism is a moral issue. So is being able to eat and have a roof over your head."
For now, these new outreach efforts are in their infancy; the Mayflower group won't have office space till next month. But analysts agree that the GOP needs only modest gains to make a big difference. "For us, 20 percent [of the black vote] would be the death knell of the Democrats," says Phyllis Berry Myers, a Mayflower founder. It doesn't sound like an outsize goal. For Democrats, that's a sobering thought.
This story appears in the March 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.