Reince Priebus is staking his legacy as Republican National Committee chairman on improving the party's performance with minority voters.
“I just sort of reached a boiling point on the issue,” Priebus told The Hill in an interview at RNC headquarters on Friday. “I want to fix these problems.”
As the first black president, Obama’s success with black voters is no surprise, but the rising margins he won with all three demographics is a warning sign for the GOP. Obama only won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008 and 62 percent of the Asian-American vote.
Democrats are already whispering about how demographics could quickly turn traditionally red states like Arizona and Texas blue. Asians and Hispanics are the fastest-rising electoral groups in the country.
Priebus says he plans on being remembered as the Republican chairman who changed things for his party.
“Our legacy is going to be that we were the RNC that actually turned the talk into action and cared most about moving the dial, not a couple of good stories that we could spin out and have a few good days here and there, but have a long-lasting change for the future of our party and our country,” he said in an interview.
Priebus spoke shortly after an RNC event saluting “black Republican trailblazers” at the Capitol Hill Press Club. Speaking to a room full of predominantly black businessmen, community leaders, party activists and dignitaries, Priebus said he was committed to “building long term, lasting, genuine, and authentic relationships” in places where the Republican Party “just hasn’t been.”
“We’re here because we know we need to grow our party,” Priebus told the group. “We must take our message to every neighborhood and every community, and as we know, we’ve got a lot of ground to make up with the black community.”
The chairman argues that by appealing more to minority voters, Republicans can broaden the electoral playing field. Right now, he says the GOP is too dependent on running the table in a handful of states.
“We’re competing in eight states, and the game is, you have to hit the bulls-eye in those eight states, and if you miss one you’re out of the game,” he said. “That’s a ridiculous path that we’ve developed and we can’t get there without growing our party.”
The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project is taking a two-pronged approach in addressing these challenges – one that focuses on micro-targeted community-based outreach, and one that communicates a more positive broader message that voters can connect with emotionally.
On the grassroots side, Priebus acknowledged that “our contacts are lousy,” and that for too long the party has executed a “get out the vote effort four months before the election,” while Democrats have cultivated long-term relationships at the local level.
The RNC’s grassroots overhaul will address everything from “technology, data sharing, demographic issues, voter outreach and inclusion, to our primary system and the debate calendar,” an effort that Priebus said would be “extraordinarily expensive.”
“It’s a granular approach to what we need to be doing as a party,” he said. “What I think we need to do…is come together with a detailed specific plan that’s going to involve lots of people across the country, not just working out of the RNC, but through cooperation with state parties and setting standards in regard to voter registration and community events and everything else in between.”
The second initiative is improving the GOP’s message to and image with minority groups. During the GOP presidential primary, statements by GOP candidates on matters ranging from welfare to immigration turned many minority voters off.
Perhaps nothing crystallized the problem more than Mitt Romney’s comment at a fundraiser that 47 percent of voters were “dependent on government” and believed they were “victims” who are “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, you name it.”
The comments in a video secretly taped at a fundraiser were one of the most dramatic moments of the campaign.
“In order to start winning presidential elections, I think we have to start winning over people’s hearts,” Priebus said. “It’s an emotional vote and it’s a cultural vote. I think at times we divorce ourselves from the culture. We shouldn’t."
The GOP has had some early success in recruiting new black voices to convey its economic message.
Dr. Benjamin Carson electrified conservatives last month in his National Prayer Breakfast speech, which led to a “Ben Carson for president” piece from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Many on the right championed the address, which appeared to make Obama uncomfortable and has been viewed on YouTube nearly 2.8 million times.
On Friday, the keynote speaker at the RNC luncheon was David Steward, a successful entrepreneur and community leader. Steward is charismatic and his style is similar to Carson’s, in that it’s family-focused and steeped in Biblical teachings.
A successful entrepreneur, Steward founded World Wide Technology, which pulls in more than $5 billion in annual sales, and his story of overcoming hardship in the face of segregation is one the RNC is looking to highlight in its rebranding efforts.
Steward’s commitment to the party’s conservative principles is innate and natural.
He identified George H.W. Bush, who wrote the foreword to his book, as his political hero, and bemoaned the migration of African Americans away from the GOP, reminding the audience of the long history of black Republicans.
Priebus acknowledges it willl take time for these new initiatives to gain traction and for these new messages to sink in.
“I don’t think it’s something that’s going to happen in two months,” he said. “I think it could take a couple of years, two years, four years, this is a long view. I promise you I don’t have a short view on this. I don’t believe that there’s some magic pixie dust that’s going to change everything overnight.
“But I do believe that if we work hard, tell our story, get community based, finance something that’s big and bold, that we can move the numbers in a significant way for us in the future,” he said. “And it’s not just to move the numbers – it’s to do the right thing.”