Since opening an African-American engagement office in North
Carolina last fall, Republicans have courted black business leaders,
visited barber shops and churches and gone door-to-door in black
neighborhoods to sell the Republican message.
So far, their success has been limited. But they say it is just the
first step in a sustained effort to change the party's image among
black voters, the most loyal Democratic voting bloc.
"Is it an uphill battle? Absolutely. Are we making grand progress?
Absolutely not. But I feel like I'm changing one or two minds here
or there," said Felice Pete, a nurse anesthetist and a member of the
state party's Black Advisory Board.
The swing state, one of 11 where the Republican National Committee
has hired staff to reach black voters, hosts one of the country's
most important Senate races in November's midterm elections.
But Democrats and civil rights leaders question how a Republican
Party pulled to the right in recent years by the conservative Tea
Party movement can make inroads among African-Americans.
When President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, Mitt Romney
received 6 percent of the black vote. No Republican presidential
contender has won more than 12 percent of black votes since
President Gerald Ford's 15 percent in 1976.
"Certainly it's the place we have the most work to do, but I don't
necessarily think it's the hardest sell," RNC Chairman Reince
Priebus said of reaching black voters.
"We are spending and employing more people and working harder on
this effort than we ever have," he said. "Does that mean we're going
to get 60 percent of the vote? Probably not. But I bet it has an
impact and I bet we eventually get 15, 20, 25 percent."
Some black voters in North Carolina said they cannot take the effort
seriously in a state where the Republican-led legislature has
reduced unemployment benefits, curtailed early voting and same-day
registration and declined to expand the federal Medicaid healthcare
plan for the poor.
Civil rights groups launched weekly "Moral Monday" protests at the
Raleigh statehouse against the Republican agenda, leading to more
than 1,000 arrests over the course of the last year.
"Let me see, you want to take away my healthcare, unemployment
compensation and voting rights, but you want me to think you are my
friend? Old folks have an expression for that: 'Is you a fool?'"
Curtis Bridges, a black electronics technician, said at a Raleigh
voter registration rally sponsored by the Moral Monday protest
[to top of second column]
Earl Philip, North Carolina director of the Republican program, said
he emphasizes the party's commitment to faith, family values and
economic opportunity along with support for school choice and help
for small businesses.
"There is nothing wrong with our message, we
just have to do a better job of talking about it," he said.
The RNC so far has spent more than $10 million to hire staff for
African-American voter engagement in North Carolina, Michigan,
Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia,
Wisconsin and Colorado - all states with significant black
populations or key midterm races, or both.
Party officials say the larger target is the 2016 presidential
election and beyond, although Priebus said he expects some payoff in
the midterms. In North Carolina, the race between incumbent
Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis is tight and
the black vote could be crucial.
But the rise of the Tea Party and its conservative emphasis on
cutting government programs that are popular with black voters could
pose a hurdle.
"Everything they hear is Tea Party this, Tea Party that. They think
Republicans don't care," Franklin Freeman, a management consultant,
said of black voters during a meeting of Charlotte-area black
business leaders organized by Philip.
Republicans see an opportunity, though. Several attendees at a
Charlotte barber shop meeting with young people and at an open house
at the party's local headquarters said they were not registered
Republicans but had an open mind.
"I want to learn more - I see a lot of good up-and-coming
Republicans," said Brenda Robinson of Charlotte, the first black
woman pilot in the U.S. Navy. "I just want smart people to win."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Douglas Royalty)
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