The GOP on its minority problem: Don’t call it ‘outreach,’ but ‘engagement’

By Mary C. Curtis, Washington Post

The New Mexico governor’s ears must have been burning. Susana Martinez (R) was not in attendance at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C., last week, but she was praised to the skies by leaders looking to capture minority voters the party repelled in the 2012 presidential election. Martinez’s up from hard-working Mexican-American parents back story and her political success in a state that voted for President Obama make her irresistible to a party with a plan.

This from Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour: “Susana Martinez is dynamic; she’s smart, she’s not afraid.” I asked Thomas Del Beccaro, the California party chairman, his wish list for 2016. “I obviously want someone more capable of articulating the American dream to people in ways that will inspire them,” he said. “Someone like Susana. Life wasn’t given to her; her family took opportunities, took risks.”

Zoraida Fonalledas had a lot to say, as well. The national committeewoman for Puerto Rico just didn’t get to say it when she sat with the four other members of the Growth and Opportunity Project panel, answering reporters’ questions about how the party would regroup. Doing most of the talking were Barbour; Ari Fleischer, the longtime Washington insider “happy to dive right into this,” he told me; Florida GOP strategist Sally Bradshaw, and Glenn McCall, national committeeman from South Carolina.

After the panel’s Thursday briefing, Fonalledas said, “There are a lot of good candidates – Susana Martinez, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal — we have to pick a candidate who is more open, more inclusive if we want to win elections.”

Rubio, the Florida senator, was another much mentioned future hope of the Republican Party. Louisiana Gov. Jindal, with a speech in Charlotte, delivered the message in starker terms: “We must reject the notion that demography is destiny, the pathetic and simplistic notion that skin pigmentation dictates voter behavior. …The first step in getting voters to like you is to demonstrate that you like them.”

The plan is for the project to deliver a report in March, but the language of diversity is something Republicans are still getting used to. In his presentation, Barbour talked about the message to be delivered as Republicans look to fill a big tent. “We’re the party of opportunity,” he said. “They’re the party of dependency.” I asked if that’s the most felicitous term to use in a message to loyal Democrats you’re eager to convert.

“I think what we want to talk about is opportunity, the opportunity for people to aspire to reach their dreams whatever that may be,” Barbour said, mentioning strong schools as a common goal. “We want to make certain we’re campaigning in every state in every region to every voter, and we are inclusive. And even if we disagree with you that doesn’t mean we don’t like you.”

Said Fleischer, “Republicans cannot scare people and expect to win. Republicans have to invite people and include people and that’s how you win. Instead I think in too many places, black Americans and Hispanic communities and gay Americans, they just think it’s a party that just doesn’t care.

“If you begin a sentence using the word ‘deportation’ they’re not going to listen to the next sentence, whether it’s on jobs or on crime or on health care or on education,” Fleischer said.

Committee members, strategists and folks such as Newt Gingrich, who always seems to be at these sorts of events, probably got sick of hearing the same question, one that questions the depth of this “come to Jesus” moment: Is it just a matter of tone or are the policies of the GOP the real problem?

McCall didn’t mind talking about it. He was loose and good-natured, in contrast to the ultra-serious mood of fellow committee members trying to crack the code of winning the votes of African Americans like him. (When the panel was asked how the GOP would attract black voters, all heads immediately turned as one to McCall – the only African American among the five — like a scene from a late-night comedy skit.)

“I was talking to someone about outreach,” McCall said in an interview. “That’s an old word; it’s more about engagement.

“We go into communities three, four months before an election asking for votes where we’ve built no relationship at all,” he said. “It’s being sincere, and stop communicating in those facts and figures. … That’s what the Democrats have done well, appealing to the heart.”

Gingrich, who roamed the conference hotel corridors after participating in a closed-press strategy session on messaging, wasn’t shy about telling me what presidential candidate Gingrich would have done. “I would have run a campaign that was very intensely in every part of the country. I wouldn’t have conceded anyplace. … A candidate who sincerely communicates the opportunity for a better future could attract votes in ways that people currently can’t project because they think in static models.”

Gingrich, or maybe Herman Cain, was the first 2012 choice of Earl Phillip, Army veteran, doctoral student, family man and African American active in the North Carolina Republican Party. “Romney wasn’t my first, second, third or fourth pick — he wasn’t in my pick.” For 2016, he would like to see a Marco Rubio-Condoleezza Rice ticket. “The country has come a long way with Barack Obama being president of the United States, despite all his issues and policies that I don’t agree with. It’s beautiful and great to have a black man as president.”

Though Phillip participated in a panel burdened with the O-word, he said, “I don’t want to say the word ‘outreach.’ The RNC agrees. They know they don’t want to use that.”

After delivering his own message to the GOP crowd in search of minority voters and answers, Phillip said there were “a lot of people clapping.”

“It’s messaging, not policy at all,” he said. “Being a former Democrat, I had no problem with Republicans believing in faith and self-responsibility and accountability. My problem was messaging. Do they even want my kind in their party?”

To build a core of voters in a new America, the GOP will have to figure out the answer — and mean it.

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