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How should conservatives reach out to “non-traditional” (read: non-white) Republican voters? Just tell them that because they have a lower life expectancy than whites, they should care less about Social Security and vote with the party that cares more about protecting personal wealth than earned benefits.

That’s the advice that Elroy Sailor — CEO of J.C. Watts Companies, a lobbying firm — gave at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the country’s largest gathering of conservative voters, businesses, and leaders in America. Sailor, who’s African-American, did not explore why blacks have a lower life expectancy, and he notably ignored how that’s connected with gun violence (nearly 50 percent of homicide victims are black). Instead, he touted his family’s history of gun ownership, proudly claiming that when he was 13 years old, his father told him to protect his family when he had night shifts. In the ghetto, he said, guns are a necessary part of life.

Sporting cowboy boots and a southern twang, Sailor was one of four speakers addressing the issue of low minority support for Republicans at a panel entitled “Reaching Out: The Rest of the Story.” He was joined by one other African-American panelist: Robert Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a Washington, D.C.-based organization built to “help residents of low-income neighborhoods address the problems of their community.” They were two of only a handful of black faces among thousands of overwhelmingly vanilla CPAC attendees.

Republicans are clearly worried about low support among minorities, and they have every reason to be. Speaking on the panel, Senate hopeful Ed Gillespie of Virginia said that in the last election, only 11 percent of black voters supported Republican candidates (up from 9 percent in 2008). Furthermore, the last election had a higher turnout among black voters than white voters.

“We are on an unsustainable path if we don’t correct things,” warned panel moderator Jason Roe, a political consultant.

The question the party is grappling with is whether to change its tactics to court minority voters, or instead try to show these voters that its tactics work for them. Gillespie prefers the latter approach.

“It’s about sticking to our conservative values and showing people that they work for them,” he said. “Everything that [Democrats] do results in lost income, lower take-home pay, higher health care costs. We’ve got to provide a positive alternative.”

Woodson stressed the importance of building a grassroots movement among black voters. “We’ve got to demonstrate that we care, not just tell them that we care or that we share their values… we have got to reach out to them.” He suggested that conservatives should offer financial support for community initiatives, as liberal donors have done through programs like President Obama’s new “My Brother’s Keeper.” 

Woodson also noted that where there’s poverty and discontent, there’s opportunity. Degrading cities like Detroit “are ripe for outreach by the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” he explained. “They are anxious and available, but we need to be available to them, by going into their communities and finding them.”

He also urged his fellow Republicans to demonstrate the importance of overcoming barriers. Find former heroin users, prisoners, woeful women who have had abortions, and youth who have made it against all odds and make them “the symbols of conservative future,” Woodson suggested. “We need to be the movement of redemption. We need to do studies of people who have been redeemed from that bad start.”

The panel was as much about how the right can court minority voters as how minority Republicans can court the right. Sailor pandered to conservative values through statements like “abortion has been worse to the African-American community than the slave trade or Jim Crow” and “As people who love freedom and liberty, we don’t have to abandon our existing friends to make new friends…We’ve allowed the left to somehow to define diversity as their thing.”

For all the panel’s talk of being sympathetic to minority issues, the tone shifted dramatically just moments after its conclusion when Donald Trump took the stage to address the convention. Speaking on immigration, Trump embraced xenophobia, telling the loudly cheering crowd, “We’re either a country or we’re not. We either have borders or we don’t. With immigration, you’d better be smart, and you’d better be tough, and they’re taking your jobs. You’d better be careful.”

He also said he’d rather see schools built in America than Afghanistan because “they keep blowing the schools up.” Trump added, to more applause, “[Afghans] don’t want us, and I don’t want them!”

Both in rhetoric and in action, this waxen conference and the movement it represents clearly have a long way to go to court minority voters.

Photo: Pete Marovich/MCT

Sen. Kamala Harris

Photo by Mobilus In Mobili/ CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2016, I wanted Hillary Clinton to be our next president, and I was sure that she would be.

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In 2019 and early 2020, I wanted a woman to win the Democratic Party's nomination for president. Instead, one qualified woman after another failed to get enough votes, and now Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee.

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