Kilgore, GOP reaching out to African-Americans

The Top Story by Chris Graham

The magic number for Republicans to reach is mighty, mighty low.

“Dating back to 1981, no Republican gubernatorial candidate who has received less than 10 percent of the African-American vote has won the general election,” University of Virginia politics analyst Matt Smyth said.

The last two Republicans to be elected governor, George Allen and Jim Gilmore, both received 11 percent of the vote, Smyth told The Augusta Free Press.

“Statistics are statistics, so take that for what it’s worth,” Smyth said.

Republican Party gubernatorial-nomination race frontrunner Jerry Kilgore is not taking the historical data at face value. This week, Kilgore launched a new African-American-voter-focused radio-ad campaign on urban stations with primarily African-American audiences across the Commonwealth.

The first spot in the campaign, titled “Our Business,” features an announcer who begins by saying “how we vote and who we vote for should be our business.”

“This year, let’s be for the person, not the party,” the announcer continues.

“Let’s be for somebody who doesn’t just talk about getting criminals off our streets, let’s be for somebody who’s done it. Somebody who knows about gang violence, failing schools, and the drugs that threaten all our kids. Somebody with a proven record of protecting women and the elderly from abuse and violent crime. Somebody who has a plan for education that will help all our kids, because every child deserves the chance to succeed. Somebody like Jerry Kilgore.”

“We want to make sure that we reach out to all Virginians, all groups, all organizations,” said Tiffany Watkins, the deputy policy director for the Kilgore campaign.

“The African-American community is one of the groups that we are focusing on in particular,” said Watkins, who served as the national director of African-Americans for Bush in 2004.

“We want to do everything that we can to let African-Americans know who Jerry Kilgore is and what his message is and what he stands for and show them that he’s a person that they can trust,” Watkins told the AFP.

Kilgore isn’t the only Republican thinking of ways to try to reach out to the traditionally Democratic African-American voting base.

“This effort is very instrumental to the growth of the Republican Party,” said Tara Wall, the director of outreach communications for the Republican National Committee.

“We have to do a better job of reaching out across the spectrum and representing all people,” said Wall, a Bush campaign strategist in 2004 who also served as the head of a local African-Americans for Bush group in Detroit in the 2000 campaign.

“We can’t really call ourselves a majority party until we make improvements in this area. It’s imperative that we move forward with this effort, and (RNC) Chairman (Ken) Mehlman has made it clear that this is one of his top priorities,” Wall told the AFP.

Given the historical voting patterns of African-Americans, though, the question has to be asked – will the attempt of the GOP to reach out to African-American voters end up being seen as being worth the time and resources that will have to be committed?

“It’s a smart strategy for Republicans to try to aggressively go after what has traditionally been viewed as a Democratic voting bloc,” George Mason University political-science professor and political analyst Mark Rozell told the AFP.

“As more African-Americans achieve greater success in American society, more education, better jobs, homes out in the suburbs, the American dream, as it were, you’re going to see Republicans have more opportunities to reach out and appeal to traditionally Democratic voters,” Rozell said.

The early returns indicate that the effort might already be paying off – based on a look at the data from the 2004 campaign, anyway.

“We saw gains in Ohio from 9 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004. We saw 13 percent in Florida, 14 percent in Pennsylvania. And if you look at the numbers, while it may appear that the number of African-Americans voting Republican was only up a few percentage points, when you compare the turnout in 2004 to 2000, 70 percent more African-Americans voted for the president in 2004. The message clearly is resonating,” Wall said.

Another question that will be answered down the road is … what does the GOP have to offer African-American voters?

“The African-American community has a very strong sense of social justice, so the GOP can give out handshakes and hugs all day long, but until the policies it pursues change to reflect a worldview that values regular folks over corporations and the most privileged Americans, I think most people will continue to see the Republican Party’s efforts as cosmetic at best, disingenuous at worst,” Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Kevin Griffis told the AFP.

Rozell, for his part, said “the demographics within the African-American community, which is more religious than the white community, where people go to church more often, where people tend to be more conservative particularly on social issues, show that progress can be made.”

Watkins said she believes that “that the values piece that played out in the Bush-Kerry campaign in 2004 will be important in 2005 as well.”

“Voters, including many African-American voters, are going to want somebody who has the right position on abortion and marriage. The more effective that we can be in getting the message out that Jerry Kilgore is the conservative candidate who will see to it that these things are handled appropriately, the more his message will resonate in the African-American community,” Watkins said.

As important as it is for messages to resonate, “a bigger part of this is listening to the African-American community,” Wall said.

“An example of that in action is the meeting that the president had with members of the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this year that included discussions of the nation’s gang problem. The president got the message, and took steps to increase our efforts to combat gangs and stepped up to the plate with the money to see to it that the problem wasn’t swept under the rug,” Wall said.

Democrats still have the advantage when it comes to having the ear of the African-American community in that respect.

“It’s important to note that the party is talking to black voters when it holds its regular meetings, because black Virginians are represented throughout the party structure. The GOP can’t say that. By and large, they have to look elsewhere,” Griffis said.

“The Democratic Party also has a full-time outreach coordinator, as does the Virginia coordinated campaign. We’re putting our money where our mouth is, unlike the Kilgore campaign, for example, which recently made an insignificant radio purchase that was designed more as a press hit than an actual attempt to reach black voters,” Griffis said.

The Republican Party’s efforts at building its African-American voter base is no press hit, to hear Wall tell it.

“More and more African-Americans consider themselves independent. Those voters are willing to give both sides equal opportunity to present their message and make their own choice as to who to support. Which is a good thing, because black folks deserve a two-party system like everyone else,” Wall said.



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