The Republican Party’s latest attempt to persuade black voters to join the party rests on the shoulders of a former Georgia Democrat who once stood on stage of that party’s national convention and declared himself an enthusiastic John Kerry supporter.
Ashley Bell was tapped this week to head the Republican National Committee’s black political engagement efforts. His job is to broaden the GOP’s demographic appeal by honing the party’s talking points to reach minority voters, sharpening political messaging on criminal justice initiatives and speaking up for Donald Trump in competitive states.
Republicans have long struggled to capture minority votes, but Bell’s assignment seems monumentally difficult, even in his home state. Last week’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that showed Democrat Hillary Clinton with a slim lead over Trump in the state also had the Republican at just 5 percent among black Georgians.
“We have a big hill to climb. I understand that more than anybody,” said Bell, who will shuttle from his Gainesville home to Washington. “For me, this is as much personal as it is political.”
His complicated history can be a boon and a burden. He has ties to African-American leaders and politicians he cultivated during his years in Democratic circles, and he noted that an advocacy group he helped launch attracted crowds at both the Republican and Democratic conventions last month.
And yet his party switch has soured some fellow conservatives who assert, in the words of one Facebook group objecting to one of his past campaigns, that he’s “pretending to be a Republican.” Some Democrats, meanwhile, are quick to smirk at the challenges awaiting him.
“He’s a decent enough fellow, but he’s got an impossible job with the RNC,” said Eric Gray, a Democratic operative in Hall County who has known Bell for years. “Donald Trump is the most xenophobic and bigoted presidential candidate in my lifetime, and there’s very little that Bell can do to make Trump more palatable to people of color.”
A ‘historic’ party flip
To say Bell’s political transformation is dizzying is an understatement.
In 2004, he was the president of the College Democrats of America and was introduced as “one of the future leaders of our party” on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He took the floor amid a clattering of applause to endorse Kerry and praise Democrats as the party “that earned my loyalty as a child and it keeps my loyalty today.”
His election to the Hall County Commission in 2008 at age 27 seemed another rung on the ladder toward an inevitable bid for higher office. But local activists grew suspicious in 2010 when Bell started showing up at campaign events around Gainesville for Republican Nathan Deal during his campaign for governor.
Shortly after Deal’s victory, Bell announced his flip to the GOP at a press conference that local Republicans billed as a “historic announcement.” He said at the time that he felt “more at home” with conservative Republican policies, and his decision made national news as a wave of conservative-leaning Democrats flipped after the midterm elections.
Back home, Republican leaders cast it as a watershed moment. He was dubbed the first known black elected official to switch to the GOP in Georgia, and Deal said it was a harbinger of “what is happening in our state.”
Gainesville voters, though, were far from convinced. Bell was trounced in the 2012 GOP primary by Jeffrey Stowe, a political novice who owned a local electronics store and reminded voters he was a “lifelong Republican” and that he planned to stay in Gainesville for the long haul.
“It was a good race, a clean race,” said Stowe, who is seeking another term in November. “I’m excited and humbled to serve Hall County. And I think Ashley enjoys the limelight of the national race a little more. I hope it leads to bigger things for him.”
Bell took another stab at elected office in 2014 when he joined the race for state school superintendent. He earned the endorsements of a handful of top Republican officials, but his campaign struggled to gain traction and he finished fourth in the crowded contest.
He never strayed far from politics and helped launch the bipartisan 20/20 Leaders of America, which this election cycle is focusing on criminal justice initiatives. At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, he was a constant hive of activity, pivoting from media interviews to campaign events to appearances for his advocacy group.
He’s been part of the Republican effort to increase its appeal to minority voters since 2013, when Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus conducted an “autopsy” into Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 bid for president. And the most recent polls outline just how difficult his work is.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News survey shows that 91 percent of black voters reported an unfavorable view of Trump. The AJC poll shows 84 percent of black voters in Georgia have negative views of him — and only 7 percent gave him a positive rating. Katherine Watt, a 60-year-old nursing assistant from southwest Atlanta, illustrates his challenge.
“Hillary versus Donald is the no-brainer of the election,” said Watt, who is black. “Donald has no experience whatsoever in being able to run the country. He has no political background whatsoever. He just has hatred. We know Hillary. And we pray that she’ll do what she says she’ll do.”
Bell sees an opening, though, among younger black Democrats who are turned off by Bill Clinton’s tough-on-crime policies when he was president, and Bell points to initiatives in Republican-led states such as Georgia that have diverted low-level offenders from prisons that could resonate with Black Lives Matters activists. Trump’s business background, he added, could appeal to the growing number of black entrepreneurs.
“We have work to do, but it’s work we’re willing to do,” he said. “We have a challenge, and with a nontraditional candidate like Donald Trump, we are in a unique position to help out.”
Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP’s minority engagement guru, predicted that Trump could get 20 percent of the minority vote. And Bell said that mark is not out of reach, despite the dismal polling among black voters. One of his main missions: to convince black voters the GOP hasn’t “given up” on them.
“We are doubling down on the African-American vote,” he said. “The Democratic Party hasn’t had the answers. I go into urban areas where the Republicans haven’t been elected to anything, not even dogcatcher, and ask: Why not hear us out?”
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Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this article.