Behind the Blue Wall, 2014 was a very difficult year for Republicans. In Illinois, the party needed to pick up one seat in the State Assembly to break the Democrats’ super-majority. We failed. The party’s candidate for the US Senate was routed. Our candidates for statewide office lost, except for one.
In the midst of a deep slump, Republicans were able to elect Bruce Rauner to the Illinois Governor’s office. Looking closely at both his successes and his failures in 2014, a pattern emerges that shows the way forward. The road to a Republican renaissance runs through America’s biggest cities.
A return to relevance starts with a candid understanding of the burdens a Republican faces in urban areas. Republicans, not Democrats, built the Blue Wall. Through a steadily intensifying focus on the fears of aging white voters, particularly in the South and rural West, the party’s brand has become toxic in America’s cities. In 2000, there were Republican mayors in half of the country’s ten largest cities. Today Republicans govern only five out of the country’s 30 largest cities.
For a party premised on commercial and professional interests, our absence from meaningful urban influence is a bizarre distortion screaming to be corrected. A 21st century economic boom is emerging from our big urban downtowns. Eight big cities accounted for more than 75% of all new venture capital investment in the US in 2014. They are all governed by Democrats.
Rauner’s campaign attacked this problem head on by distancing themselves from the national party’s rhetoric and campaigning aggressively in Chicago. That strategy relied on this critical understanding – the marriage between urban voters and the Democratic Party is loveless.
Cities are electing Democrats because their voters feel, with complete justification, that the Republican Party is vigorously hostile to their values and interests. In places like Chicago, Boston, and Seattle, a political program based on Olde Tyme Religion, slashing government investment, and stoking white racial fears is not merely unappealing, it is a nightmare. Big cities vote Democratic because they have no realistic alternative.
That preface is vital to understanding what did and did not work in the Rauner campaign and, by extension, to recognizing what Republicans can expect from urban outreach. Review a newspaper story about Rauner’s win and you’ll probably read that his campaign in Chicago’s black neighborhoods was the key to his success. That claim is true, yet dangerously misleading.
Rauner’s appeal to Chicago’s black community did indeed unlock new support, but not among black voters. Outreach to the black community accomplished three goals, 1) dampening Democratic turnout, 2) developing longer-term openings to black voters in future elections, and most importantly 3) helping Rauner dramatically outpoll other Republicans in Chicago’s more affluent wards. In other words, the most important impact of Rauner’s African-American outreach in the 2014 Election was felt in white neighborhoods.
For all the effort, Rauner failed to win black voters in any numbers. People do not switch parties easily. African-American voters maintain remarkable solidarity at the polls for very good reasons. Persuading them to break ranks will take more than one candidate in one election making a few hopeful moves.
Rev. James Meeks, an African-American former state senator and pastor of a South Side megachurch was the keystone of Rauner’s outreach. Meeks and several other black political figures campaigned enthusiastically with Rauner in Chicago. The Governor earned only 3% of the vote in Meek’s Chicago Ward, about as close to zero as statistics will allow. Results among black voters elsewhere in Chicago and the state were little better.
Meanwhile, Rauner racked up strong numbers among other voters in Chicago, as evidenced by results from affluent, predominantly white, Lincoln Park. The previous GOP nominee for Governor in 2010 earned barely over a third of the vote in Lincoln Park’s 43rd Ward. Rauner won half. The Republican US Senate at the top of the ballot with Rauner was a social conservative in line with the national party. He earned less than a third of the vote in the 43rd Ward.
Turnout was soft in Chicago. Again, Rauner’s outreach to the black community was key. Much of what drives Democratic support in major urban centers is the fear of living under ideologically rigid, socially conservative, and no so subtly racist Republican leadership. Consistently seeing Rauner on the evening news next to black supporters on the South Side may not have been enough to win droves of Democratic voters, but it was enough to ease their fears. Knowing that the state would continue to be dominated by a Democratic State Assembly and recognizing that Rauner was not the usual white Republican curbed Democratic enthusiasm just enough to weaken his rival.
With an eye on 2018, Rauner has continued his efforts in the city. He has named prominent black Chicago Democrats to powerful (and lucrative – this is Illinois) state offices. He has stuck to his campaign promises, focusing his efforts in Springfield on budget issues and government reform. There is a chance that his efforts could, in time, start to build new openings for Republicans among black voters, particularly the growing black middle class in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Amid all the success, Rauner’s failure to win votes in black neighborhoods in 2014 points out some of the weaknesses of his strategy and the burdens any Republican faces. Perhaps most importantly, Rauner’s campaign was undermined by the need to lean on black leadership figures who were already isolated from the core of their political base.
Rev. Meeks is just one example that illustrates this point. His willingness to cooperate was extremely helpful, but if the campaign had enjoyed a little more time they might have been able to recruit allies among black figures with a stronger reputation who would better fit the campaign’s platform.
Meeks had become alienated from the Democratic Party over a combination of his own frustrated ambitions and his virulent anti-gay, anti-abortion rhetoric. Meek’s strident social conservatism, while in line with the national party, would have been catastrophic for Rauner. As a consequence Meeks was relegated to a relatively minor, though consistently visible role in the campaign. It was an awkward alliance with limited capacity to bear fruit.
Voters in Lincoln Park who know little about politics in black communities might have been impressed by seeing Rauner appearing with Meeks. Voters on the South Side were seeing a more cynical picture, perhaps more cynical than Rauner’s campaign even realized.
A more sustained effort to build partnerships with black communities could yield considerably more value for Republicans. To work, those efforts must be premised on listening, not just giving speeches. Unfortunately, Republicans lack the simplest foundations of access to black neighborhoods. Across much of the country, GOP figures at all levels would struggle just to find phone numbers of relevant black political leaders. A great deal of work lies ahead to build the simplest connections from which the beginnings of political coordination might be constructed.
Making those efforts bear fruit will require Republicans to resist a terrible temptation. Thus far, every form of Republican outreach has been premised on a search for “the good Negro” willing to endorse the party ‘s wildest extremes without complaint or dissent. They are elevated to token roles in the hope of assuaging minority concerns. Despite our willingness to put them on stage, Republicans have demonstrated absolutely zero patience if they ever question the party line.
Our problems in minority communities are deeper than marketing or messaging. The core premise of our political program will have to be re-evaluated in light of what we learn in America’s cities. Instead of recruiting pliable tokens the party will have to start engaging in honest, sometimes painful dialogue with minority voters.
For a party that grows ever more burdened by racist rhetoric, there is no path back to relevance that does not include some uncomfortable conversations. As outlined in the first post on this subject, a reform effort will have to center on a clear statement of beliefs that breaks with current orthodoxy. Only when we are ready to reckon with disconcerting realities and make room in the party for black voters to participate on an equal footing will we start to see gains.
This reality is why an entire post premised on attracting new voters has not yet used the word “Hispanic” a single time. That is not because Hispanic and Asian voters have the same interests as the black community, or that any of these communities can be successfully addressed as a monolithic bloc. Their issue with the Republican Party doesn’t stem from their unique political interests. Their problem with the Republican Party is the way the Republican Party treats them. They way the Republican Party treats non white voters is the biggest single obstacle to winning in cities.
Solve the institutional problems that prevent a Republican, any Republican, from winning 25% of the vote in a black neighborhood, and you will have simultaneously removed the institutional liabilities that have doomed the party among other non-white voters. With that liability lifted, the party’s appeal among white urban voters will also bloom. Become competitive in black neighborhoods and the Blue Wall will crumble.
Our road back to national relevance starts by learning to partner with African-American voters. It begins with precinct leaders and activists making efforts to contact peers in the black community to and listen to them.
Rauner’s very visible willingness to run outreach in minority communities, paired with his similarly visible refusal to indulge in culture war rhetoric, convinced just enough urban voters to give him a chance. With more time and a concerted grassroots effort, Republicans could engage in a more courageous outreach deeper in black, Hispanic, and other communities from which we have been alienated. That effort could break the Blue Wall, but only if we are willing to let these new voters play a role in changing the Republican Party.