How Can the GOP Win Over African Americans in 2016? This Strategist Explains

Telly Lovelace knows very well that the Republican Party has a hefty disadvantage among black voters heading into November’s general election. But Lovelace, who started last week as the new head of African-American outreach at the Republican National Committee (RNC), is certain he can make progress.

The GOP’s problem stretches back more than five decades. Most recently, Mitt Romney earned just 5 percent of the black vote in 2012; John McCain earned a mere 1 percent in 2008; and George W. Bush earned 7 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000.

Lovelace points out that while most African-Americans are do not currently support Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, the problem has more to do with tone than overt racial bias. And when Trump first announced his candidacy, Lovelace said many black voters seemed open to his candidacy.

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“Some of them were kind of, well initially, ‘He is a businessman, he’s created jobs,’ the celebrity status, ‘The Apprentice’” Lovelace told Opportunity Lives. “I thought there was the problems of the rhetoric, not disavowing the KKK. I don’t know if he had a moment or what.”

Lovelace said that intraparty tone is one thing during the primary election season, but that a shift will occur after the July nominating convention in Cleveland.

“Right now they’re just trying to shore up the Republican base,” Lovelace said. “Whoever the nominee is, we’ll support and be behind 100 percent. At the end of the day, once we get to the convention and once we have our nominee, I will definitely have to sit down with the nominee and his team and say ‘Well, how are we going to engage African-Americans?’”

Besides Trump, Lovelace was also critical of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for hosting an event at a venue called The Redneck Country Club on the evening of the so-called SEC primary in March. A controversial radio host who has come under fire for racially insensitive remarks owns the venue.

“We’re talking about winning a national election, but you’re hosting an event on SEC primary night at The Redneck Country Club?” Lovelace said. “That concerned me.”

“Do I believe that Donald Trump is a racist, Ted Cruz? No,” Lovelace added. “I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Trump years ago and Sen. Cruz recently, and I don’t believe that they’re racist. I think a lot of it just comes to their tone and the way they just say things.”

Lovelace says the fall campaign will be challenging, no matter the nominee. “I look at this as kind of a crisis communication,” he said. “It’s something that’s my passion, and it’s something that I thrive on. If I thought the Republican Party was racist, I would not have been there for 20 years.”

“If I thought the Republican Party was racist, I would not have been there for 20 years.”

Lovelace said he got his first exposure at age 14 when family friend Maurice Turner, a former D.C. police chief, ran for mayor as a Republican.

“There was something that just attracted me to the Republican Party, even though I knew that if you were black you were supposed to be a Democrat,” he said. “But working on this campaign, I really just got exposed to Republican politics. I got to meet President Bush, Vice President Quayle. That was my first time coming to the RNC. It was kind of like a surreal moment.”

“If I thought the Republican Party as a whole was racist, I wouldn’t be here because at the end of the day, I am a black man. I live in the black community. I grew up in the black community,” Lovelace said. “A lot of black Republicans, their exposure is more in the white community, but that’s not me.”

“So I don’t believe the Republican Party is racist as a whole. Are there racists in the Republican Party? Yeah, but are there racists in the Democratic Party? Yes there are as well,” he said.

When Lovelace registered to vote at age 18, he says he “just knew” he was a Republican.

“I remember having the form and I was excited,” he recalled. “And I remember handing that form to the social studies teacher, and she was going to put it in the stack with the rest of them, she took a look and she said ‘Tally, baby are you sure?’ I looked at her and I said ‘Yes, I checked the Republican box.’”

“I didn’t hide it, there was nothing to hide,” he continued. “I guess you could say it was a bit of voter intimidation, but I didn’t look it at that way. I was confident, and I knew that going in. I’m a registered Republican, I feel like the Republican Party most aligned with my beliefs, and ever since then I’ve just been involved in Republican politics.”

Fast forward 20 years, it’s Lovelace’s opportunity to get the Republican Party on a path to build key relationships with stakeholders in the African-American community.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to supporters during a campaign event, Monday, April 11, 2016, in the San Diego. (AP Photo/Sandy Huffaker)

Lovelace says that while Republicans have the policies that will best help the African American community, candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz, above, should alter their tone in order to win over voters in that community. | Photo: AP

Lovelace said his goal for the 2016 election cycle is to at least double what Romney attained in 2012. Longer term, Lovelace said he wants to build on the work of his predecessor, Kristal Quarker Hartsfield, to work with urban media outlets and “really get our message out” to African-American radio, TV, print and build relationships with key stakeholders in the African-American community and urban communities across the country.”

At the end of the day, Lovelace said, blacks need to know that the Republican Party “is not this evil, racist party that people perceive that as.”

“We have the ideas that can turn urban communities around,” Lovelace said, pointing to charter schools, tax cuts for small businesses and family promotion as key conservative themes that resonate with African-Americans. Lovelace saw this firsthand while working for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who took office last year after winning significant support within the African-American community.

“Once we’re beyond his election cycle and the midterms in 2018 and the next presidential in 2020, we will already have those relationships and we can continue to build,” Lovelace said. “Just showing up and building those relationships, that’s how Gov. Hogan won… What is the most effective way to rebuild Baltimore? What is the most effective way to build relationships in urban communities? You just need to show up and build these relationships.”

“I really feel like this is my opportunity to put in place those initiatives and programs that are necessary to move the party forward and help to diversity the party,” he sad. “[RNC] Chairman [Reince] Priebus, he’s totally behind me 100 percent, and he’s empowered me with the resources I need to get things in place so that we can begin to diversify the party.”

Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.