Atlanta is on the verge of electing its first White Republican Mayor in decades. The majority Black city, known for leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, may soon be led by a White conservative. This election is a blueprint for how Republicans can work to win over Black voters and build a winning coalition for the future.
The first thing to remember is that Black voters are generally conservative. They are older, church goers, home owners, tax payers who are socially and politically traditional. They are the perfect demographic for the GOP on many levels. They support lower taxes, traditional marriage, the sanctity of life and a strong American work ethic. Many are retirees who previously served in the military or worked for the government in some capacity and hold a similar view of American interests – just as many Republicans. Not to mention high rates of gun ownership and support for the Second Amendment.
These are not far-Left Democratic base voters. Rather, the reason that 90% of Black voters generally support Democrats is because of the GOP’s problem with issues of Race.f there are Nazis in Charlottesville, too many Republicans have an issue saying “Nazis are bad.” If there is a discussion on Confederate flags and monuments, many Conservatives would rather relitigate the Civil War than simply say “Confederates are bad.” Even when NFL players are protesting to bring awareness to Criminal Justice Reform some would rather call them “Sons of B****es” instead of addressing their grievance and finding a solution.
In sum, the only thing preventing Republicans from getting 20-30% of the Black vote in 2018 or 2020 is a change in tone and policy that sacrifices the far-right wing fringe for access to the vast American middle. Remember that in 2016, President Trump was able to get 13% of the Black male vote with his “What the hell do you have to lose?” campaign promise. Imagine what he would get if he addressed mass incarceration or employment discrimination?
This has been done before. In the 1950, Black voters heavily supported Republicans after the Eisenhower administrations support for desegregation, school busing and Civil Rights legislation. Because of this strong support, in the 1960 election cycle Sen. John F. Kennedy promised prompt action on Civil Rights and that promise was executed by President Lyndon Johnson with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act in 1965 and other actions to address racial inequity throughout the 1960. Johnson could not have done these things without the Republicans in Congress who were able to break a Democratic filibuster. Because of these acts, Black voters left the party of desegregation and joined the party of Dixiecrats.
Understanding these lessons have been instrumental to the potential victory of Mary Norwood in the Atlanta Mayor’s race and can be instructive to Republicans nationwide heading into 2018. Norwood has been smart to label herself an Independent, despite voting in Republican primaries and supporting many conservative policies. Additionally, Norwood has spent 20 years in Black communities, attending HOA meetings, PTA meetings, community fairs and many other gatherings. This gave her visibility so that voters knew her personally and would not fall for negative advertising attaching her to the negative Republican brand. Finally, Norwood has punted on the issue of race. She has side stepped questions on racial profiling, gentrification and criticizing President Trump; rather concentrating on her message of cleaning up corruption in Atlanta City Hall.
The final lesson from the Norwood campaign that national Republicans should learn is the same lesson that we learned for the election of President Trump. Take advantage of inept Democratic politicians. Current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has propped up Norwood’s opponent, Keisha Lance Bottoms, in this race. His support got her into the run off. But in the process, he managed to alienate, offend and demonize the entire Atlanta political class. Because of this, the former Black Democratic Mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin, has endorsed Norwood; the Black Democratic Former City Council President Ceasar Mitchell has endorsed Norwood; even the Black Democratic former chair of the County Commission John Eaves has endorsed Norwood. The albatross of support by Kasim Reed has forced voter and politicians who would never support a Republican to in effect support a Republican. This is similar to the effect that Hillary Clinton had in turning Obama voters into Trump voters.
With the perfect storm, there is no reason that Republicans could not re-capture the Black vote and create a new political coalition. However, it will take a concentrated effort to leave a small, but loyal, portion of its base for the unknown potential of the great American center. If both parties compete for the Black vote, then everyone wins. Now Republicans can see that change is not around the corner, change is here.