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GOP's problem wooing African-American voters

By Carol Costello
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carol Costello says it's not a secret that the GOP lacks strong African-American support
  • She says the party acknowledges that it needs to do better
  • Incidents like Cliven Bundy's racist remarks set back the GOP effort, she says
  • Costello: It's appropriate to ask party officials to show what steps they are taking

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Let's get real.

The Republicans have a problem attracting African-American voters.

And Cliven Bundy made it worse.

Period.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

Not just because Bundy turned out to express racist views, but because of what he initially, falsely symbolized for some conservative Republicans: a humble, hard-working rancher who despises federal government overreach.

The fact that armed militia turned up to protect Bundy's cattle only made it worse, because it fit ever more neatly into the kind of extremist narrative that frightens many people, including many African-Americans.

They don't feel comfortable when conservatives, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, call the nation's first black President "the most lawless President in the nation's history."

And they especially don't care for the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that kind of characterization invites. Example: "These are dangerous times because this is a lawless presidency and a pliant Congress. The President's willingness to violate the Constitution publicly calls into question his fitness for office. And that deafening silence from Capitol Hill manifests a spineless refusal to preserve constitutional government."

That was written by Andrew Napolitano, who works for Fox News. The same Fox News that repeatedly validated Bundy and the armed men who chased the feds from government-owned land. The Republican National Committee loves to blame the "mainstream media" for its woes, but if it actually criticized right-wing media when it is clearly in the wrong, it would have more credibility with the very constituents it strives to attract.

The Rev. Tony Minor, who heads People For the American Way's African American Ministers in Action, told me he doesn't believe mainstream Republicans buy what Napolitano is selling, but says, "what frightens me is when those Republicans who know those kind of statements are absurd, when they don't speak against it, their silence betrays us from thinking there's any hope of any partnership with them."

In fairness, many conservatives did criticize Fox for its support of Cliven Bundy, but other Republicans, like Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, called Bundy "a patriot" and only backed away from him when it became clear Bundy was racist.

But when the Republican National Committee's Sean Spicer appeared on my show, CNN's "Newsroom," on Friday, he chose to attack me for not sufficiently covering Democrats who make horribly offensive remarks.

Except we weren't talking about Democrats, a party already backed by minority voters, but Republicans and their worthy efforts to attract a broader base.

The GOP is fighting an uphill battle and it knows it. In 2012, 93% of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama.

Every move that is viewed as an insult is going to make it difficult for the Republican Party to make up ground it needs to win.
Larry Sabato

As Larry Sabato, political scientist from the University of Virginia says, "Republicans belong to a party that desperately needs to deliver good news and appealing personalities to all minority voters." He adds, "Every move that is viewed as an insult is going to make it difficult for the Republican Party to make up ground it needs to win."

In other words, Cliven Bundy: bad, bad, bad.

Marc Lamont Hill of HuffPost Live agrees. He says if you take away Bundy's comments about slavery and focus on what he says about blacks and entitlements: "In many ways what he's saying isn't that different than mainstream Republican ideology and policy. Republicans in so many ways have codified those beliefs through policy or policy initiatives that aren't outliers -- that are part of the mainstream."

Crystal Wright, a conservative Republican who edits the blog ConservativeBlackChick.com, says she is disgusted by the Bundy affair. She told me if the Republican plan to "widen the tent" included more than community outreach, Mr. Bundy might never have become a "folk hero."

"What they (Republicans) need to do is stop looking at black people as this other kind of group," Wright said. "We (African-Americans) need to be brought into the party at all levels. I think if they would include more minorities and women at the table for strategic discussions, you wouldn't have these kind of missteps because somebody would say, hey, guys, I don't think we should embrace Mr. Bundy. Let's do our homework here."

Other black Republicans disagree with Wright. Tara Wall, who is a senior staff member for the RNC, took exception to Wright's assessment of the Republican Party and to my asking Spicer to address Wright's concerns and name some African-American senior staff members.

Tara Wall: Media's coverage of Bundy, race and GOP a disservice

Why is it beneath the dignity of the RNC to reveal the results of its much publicized "autopsy" of its defeat in 2012 or its subsequent plan to attract more African-Americans? One of its stated goals is to "...improve on promoting African-American staff and candidates within the party. The GOP should utilize African-American elected officials as surrogates both in their communities and with the national media. At the staff level, the personnel should be visible and involved in senior political and budget decisions and not be limited to demographic outreach."

Hello! This is politics, not the closed-door deliberations of the Federal Reserve Board. Visibility is part of the game, and transparency is an increasing necessity for the American voter.

So, let's get real.

The Republicans have a problem attracting African-American voters.

And Cliven Bundy made it worse.

Period.

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