Republican leaders universally acknowledge they need to be more inclusive of blacks and Hispanics or risk losing their formidable grip on state politics. But they have struggled to build support as they pushed new immigration restrictions and voting requirements unpopular with minority groups.
Gov. Nathan Deal, the party’s most powerful leader, is embracing a new strategy. After chiding members of his party to roll out the welcome mat to newcomers - “shame on us,” if not, he said - he wants his party’s message to minorities to pivot toward some of his hallmark legislative initiatives.
He argues that his criminal justice overhaul should appeal to minority voters by keeping more low-level offenders out of prisons, which lock up a disproportionate number of blacks. And he said his party’s backing of the charter school amendment should also resonate with minorities, who gave it heavy support in major majority-black counties.
Beneath it all is the hope that the GOP could begin winning over reluctant minorities who see their economic bottom line as the biggest concern, if Republicans can stake a claim as the party of job creation.
“We have to use our power to show we’re fair and impartial,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview. “A lot of voting patterns are dictated by perceptions of parties at the federal level. But the Republican Party at the state level can begin to set an example.”
It could take more than that, though, to convince minorities who have rewarded Democrats with near monolithic support. Hispanics haven’t forgotten about the immigration crackdown that Deal signed in 2011. And many black voters were outraged by the GOP’s celebratory response last week to a ruling that undoes part of a voting law dating to the civil rights era.
“I can’t think of any reason I’d vote for a Republican,” said Miya Smith, a business analyst in Atlanta who is black and consistently votes for Democrats. “I’d need to see a lot of effort before I’d be persuaded to looking more at the Republican Party. It’s a tough sell.”
Keeping their mostly white base of supporters appeased is also a challenge, and the tea party’s transformation from a group that waged war on taxes to one fighting all hints of government intrusion further complicates matters. Some party stalwarts are concerned that not enough is being made to reach the undecided.
“The silent voters are looking for something,” said Jim Camp, a Republican State Committee member from Coweta County. “And the Republican Party is failing to deliver their wants.”
Change is forecast, and fact
The influx of minorities is already beginning to tilt Georgia’s electoral scales.
From 2004 to 2012, the proportion of white voters shrunk 10 points to 61 percent while the number of Hispanic voters nearly tripled and the percentage of black voters jumped five points, to 30 percent. Some 44 percent of Georgia residents are minorities, up 7 points in the past decade, and nonwhites could outnumber whites here by 2020.
The shifts have yet to threaten Republicans, who have gained strength in the past decade. And recently redrawn state and congressional districts will make it more difficult for Democrats to seize new legislative seats even with newfound support.
But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, arguably the most influential Georgia Democrat, said he’s confident Hillary Clinton could win the state in three years partly because the GOP’s message has failed to resonate with minorities.
“The party has shown a clear commitment to the politics of subtraction,” Reed said of Republicans.
“The future is about cooperation over conflict,” added Reed, who has drawn criticism for his public support of Deal. “And that is not what some - and I want to emphasize some - members of the party at the federal government represent.”
And some political analysts are skeptical that Georgia Republicans can make inroads to minorities without turning off their shrinking white base.
Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist who studies voting trends, said the GOP’s embrace of get-tough immigration legislation, its hostility to President Barack Obama and support for rules requiring voters to show their IDs at the polls could prove insurmountable.
“It will take a much more significant shift from the party on immigration, on Voter ID laws, on social programs to appeal to minorities,” he said. “And that’s asking a lot. They’d alienate their own base of overwhelmingly white, conservative voters.”
Deal: Social issues concern all
The governor doesn’t see debates over controversial social issues as a zero-sum game that favors Republicans while infuriating Democrats. He notes traditionally strong support for abortion restrictions among minority clergy and the overwhelming endorsement of charter school expansions in majority-black counties such as Clayton as examples.
“Social issues are always the most difficult to deal with,” said Deal. “There is an assumption that these social issues necessarily break down on either racial or party lines, and that’s not exactly true.”
In recent weeks, he’s sought to step up his efforts to underscore that point. At the GOP convention in Athens, he cited statistics that show 56 percent of Georgia public school children are non-white and reminded the overwhelmingly white audience that change was coming.
He’s announced recent minority appointments to counter criticism that few blacks are picked for Georgia posts, though critics say he still has a ways to go. And he’s met with civil rights groups on his push to improve the rehabilitation of released inmates.
But like national Republicans, the brunt of his pitch to minorities hinges on economic arguments. It hasn’t worked yet on a national level, but he said making them stick here will ensure the GOP remains relevant in a changing Georgia.
“Do you want a good education? Do you want an economy that will support businesses? These are the issues we’re working on,” said Deal. “We sometimes get distracted about things we disagree on more than things we do agree on, and I would maintain the economy is one of them.”
Beneath it all is his fervent belief that many of the decades-old social battles will gradually dissipate with more prosperity for all.
“What we all want is something that is sometimes lost in all the rhetoric of these social issues: creating new job opportunities,” said Deal. “If we can provide new jobs for our citizens, and train them for the jobs, then any of the demands of government to solve social problems begin to disappear.”
If Quinton Washington is any indication, it will be a tough road ahead. Washington, an attorney and strategist who mostly works with black candidates, said it will take more than a broader message to appeal to minority voters.
“Race relations have changed, but the Republicans still come across as standing in opposition to policies that advance minority access,” said Washington, who is a Democrat. “There’s a fear that the Republican Party is the greatest threat to the push by African Americans for more rights and access and opportunities.”
The effort to entice voters like Washington could define the GOP’s future in Georgia and maintain a crucial trove of electoral votes for a Republican presidential candidate. Deal said he doesn’t plan to waste the opportunity.
“Since we are in the majority, we can send a signal by the way we govern,” he said. “It’s not governance by party dictate. It’s governance that’s good for everybody. And I think when people see that, I believe they have a restored confidence in their government.”
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Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.