The Republican Choice

The Republican Choice

In 1978, Republican party chairman Bill Brock invited Jesse Jackson to talk to party notables in Washington, D.C. An intimate of King’s, Jackson was a political whirlwind who had proved to be a dynamic civil rights organizer. “He is one of the few militant blacks who is preaching racial reconciliation,” New York Times reporter John Herbers had written of Jackson in 1969. His address trafficked in the language of incremental advantage so beloved by electorally avaricious political strategists. Seven million unregistered Black voters were waiting to be wooed by the GOP, Jackson said. “The Republican Party needs black people if it is to ever compete for national office — or, in fact, to keep it from becoming an extinct party.” The New York Times wrote that “Jackson’s proposition seems realistic enough” given that “thirty percent of Northern and 20 percent of Southern blacks already consider themselves independents.”

Jackson got a standing ovation from the crowd, and the good feelings of the day prompted Brock to say that the “right” 1980 presidential candidate “could hope for anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the Black vote.”

Reagan would go on to win only 14 percent.

For a fleeting political moment in the wreckage of Watergate, the GOP seemed to be open (once again) to the idea that their future could lie with voters of color. The conventional wisdom of that brief period, Perlstein told me in an email, “was that the Republicans would go the way of the Whigs unless they recouped their appeal to blacks.” (Perlstein has a forthcoming book that covers this period. Called “Reaganland,” it’s the latest volume in his multipart history of modern American conservatism.)

In the late 1970s, Jackson made the argument that Black voters should want the two parties to compete for their votes to attain greater political leverage. He worried that the Democratic Party would come to take Black voters for granted. (More than 40 years later, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would tell a Black radio host, “I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”) Jackson’s own personal conservatism could be seen as emblematic of that of Black Americans, ones who could be potentially courted by the GOP. A 1979 profile of Jackson by the journalist Paul Cowan described him at an anti-abortion rally: “[He] denounced abortion as ‘murder,’ he insisted that ‘when prayers leave the schools the guns come in’ … he suggested that, while he supported women’s liberation, his wife at least should stay in her place — his home.”

But the good vibes after Jackson’s speech in 1978 did not last long. Republican bureaucrats in the Reagan era coalesced around the idea that minority voters were unwinnable.

A few months before Jackson’s speech in Washington, President Carter had introduced electoral reforms — an end to the Electoral College and same-day universal voter registration — that were met with praise from Brock, the RNC chair. But an essay that soon appeared in the conservative publication Human Events expressed an opposing view in the party. Writer Kevin Phillips said that Carter’s proposal “could blow the Republican Party sky-high” given that most of the new voters in a higher-turnout election would be Democratic.

Phillips, who worked for Nixon’s 1968 campaign, was the author of the 1969 book “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which articulated a road map for the GOP to sweep up white voters. Or as a 1970 New York Times profile of the Bronx native with “a visage that looked half scholar and half black-Irishman” put it: “Political success goes to the party that can cohesively hold together the largest number of ethnic prejudices, a circumstance which at last favors the Republicans.”

Phillips was one of many loud, young voices on the “New Right” that saw Reagan as the Republican future. Reagan said the Carter proposal might as well be called “The Universal Voter Fraud Bill,” and pressured Brock into reneging on his support for it, which he did. (Google NGram mentions of the term “voter fraud” spike starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s.)

Brock’s flip-flop embodies a contradiction inherent in many of the internal GOP struggles of the past few decades, and ones that continue today: Should the party invest in appeals to new voters or pluck racism’s low-hanging electoral fruit? Brock availed himself of the latter in his 1970 Tennessee Senate race. His “victory could be credited almost entirely to his sophisticated attempts to play on Tennessean’s [sic] racial fears and animosities,” according to the Almanac of American Politics. Often, the party has attempted to play both strategies, though the racial one usually seems to blot out the more ecumenical approach.

By the time Reagan appeared at a 1980 campaign stop at the National Urban League, the prominent civil rights organization, his appearance wasn’t to win over Black voters so much as to “show moderates and liberals that Reagan wasn’t anti-black,” one aide later said.

THE 2000s

In 2005, RNC chair Ken Mehlman appeared at the NAACP national convention to formally apologize for the GOP’s Southern strategy. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

It seemed an act befitting a party whose sitting president, George W. Bush, had run for office as a “compassionate conservative.” The branding was no accident. In 2018, Bush articulated why he felt the need to convey a more explicitly empathetic message. “I felt compelled to phrase it this way, because people hear ‘conservative’ and they think heartless. And my belief then and now is that the right conservative philosophies are compassionate and help people.” Rove put it a bit more bluntly when he explained that “compassionate conservatism” helped Bush “indicate that he was different from the previous Republicans.”

It was an extension of Bush’s past success with people outside the party’s usual base. When he was governor of Texas, he won more than 50 percent of the Mexican American vote. “He was comfortable with Hispanic culture. His kids went to a large public high school in Austin that was very Hispanic,” former adviser Stuart Stevens said. “Much of his appeal among Hispanics in Texas was attributed to his personal charm and charisma,” Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University, writes of Bush in his book, “The Hispanic Republican.” “He spoke Spanish, ate Mexican sweetbreads in border cities, and for Christmas he made enchiladas and tamales that he, unlike President Ford, shucked before eating.” Rove said the Hispanic population in Texas was “highly entrepreneurial,” signed up for the military at high rates, and was religious, “so they tend to have socially traditional values,” particularly on the abortion issue. “What’s not to like about that profile if you’re a Republican?”

Bush’s focus on reforming education and immigration was key to his “compassionate conservative” appeal.


Bush’s platform aimed to be inclusive. Stevens pointed to the potential of No Child Left Behind as one example, an education program that increased funds for low-income schools, many of them home to Black and Hispanic students. Bush signed the program into law with the support of liberal icon Ted Kennedy — there’s a picture of Kennedy standing behind Bush as he puts pen to paper. Two Black children stand directly behind the president. “This is the kind of thing that the current Republican Party would present at a war crimes trial,” Stevens said of the show of bipartisanship. These days Stevens, who also served as Mitt Romney’s chief strategist during the 2012 presidential campaign, is disillusioned with the Republican Party and has a book (his eighth) all about it, “It Was All a Lie,” due out in August.

Progress with new, diverse coalitions could have been possible, Stevens said, but “you need to have changed the substance.”

But for many in the Black community, the substance boiled down to what Kanye West said during a live 2005 telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

Despite the compassionate conservatism rhetoric, the GOP of the Bush era continued to pursue policies hostile to Americans of color. The party deployed a warm and fuzzy message that belied the actions it took on voting rights. It tried to turn out Hispanic voters while tapping into efficient ways to shut down minority voting under the “voter fraud” umbrella. The abscess that George Romney had warned about not only had re-formed, it had grown.

“The first stirrings of a new movement to restrict voting came after the 2000 Florida election fiasco, which taught the unfortunate lesson that even small manipulations of election procedures could affect outcomes in close races,” Wendy Weiser, head of the Democracy Program at the left-leaning advocacy group the Brennan Center, wrote in 2014. As Carol Anderson of Emory University writes in “One Person, No Vote,” during the Bush years and beyond, Republicans who were “respectable members of society leveled the charges [of voter fraud] — U.S. senators, attorneys with law degrees from the Ivy League.”

The Republican Choice 1

The 2000 election, which brought Bush to office, marked a new era of focus on ballot rules.


John Ashcroft led a Department of Justice that took up a full-throated rallying cry against voter fraud. He had some of his own skin in the game — Ashcroft lost a 2000 Senate election in Missouri in which Republicans alleged mass voter fraud in Black precincts of St. Louis. A newspaper investigation later found the claims to be all but nonexistent. The Bush-era Civil Rights Division had the distinction of filing the first voting-discrimination suit on behalf of white voters in the history of the Voting Rights Act.

Perhaps no figure from the Bush Civil Rights Division emerged who was more controversial and long-lasting than Hans von Spakovsky. He promoted voter ID laws in his home state of Georgia starting in the 1990s, and gained infamy once he landed at the Justice Department for pseudonymously writing a law review paper under the name “Publius,” which promoted voter ID laws. Later, his identity revealed, he refused to recuse himself from a controversial case involving voter ID in Georgia. The case, which was handled under the auspices of the Voting Rights Act, led career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division to resign and, as journalist Ari Berman writes, “VRA enforcement came to a standstill. From 2001 to 2005 the DOJ objected to only forty-eight changes out of eighty-one thousand submitted, ten times fewer than during the first four years of the Reagan administration.”

Von Spakovsky has proved a durable advocate for his cause. Now the head of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, he served on Trump’s now-disbanded Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The commission was created to investigate whether Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of widespread voter fraud. No evidence for the claim has yet to be produced.

When I spoke with von Spakovsky, I asked him if it disturbed him that so-called voter fraud protection efforts disproportionately affect minorities — academic studies in various states have shown this, as has a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He told me my assumption was wrong, and said there were studies on voter ID and election turnout that found ID requirements had had no adverse effect. He also pointed to the greater number of VRA cases brought by the Bush administration compared with the number undertaken during the administration of Barack Obama.

But Democrats don’t see it as quite that simple. “Counting up the number of cases isn’t really meaningful,” Justin Levitt, who worked in the Civil Rights Division during Obama’s presidency, wrote in an email when I asked him about von Spakovsky’s claim. “It’s a little bit like counting up the number of reps in a workout at the gym to try to figure out who’s more physically fit, without asking which exercises, which weights, which degree of difficulty. Or counting up the number of words in a piece to try to figure out which is the best reporting.”

The Republican Choice 2

The movement to require an ID at the ballot box began in earnest during the Bush administration. Voting rights activists have long called the laws racially biased and unnecessary.


Testing claims about the effect that voter ID laws have on election turnout is tricky. Findings about their effect have varied from state to state, which likely has to do with the nature of state laws and their voting populations. But a measure like turnout also doesn’t take into account how the laws push some people to go through greater effort to cast a ballot successfully.

Levitt, who is now a constitutional law scholar at Loyola Marymount University, did an investigation into cases of election fraud that could have been stopped by the use of voter ID, and found, out of about a billion ballots cast, only 31 instances from the period of 2000 to 2014. The analysis and its results prompt an obvious question: If fraud is so rare, what’s the actual purpose of ID laws?

Attacks on voter franchise are more broad than voter ID laws, of course. Voter roll purges have moved front and center in recent years thanks to events like the controversial 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. And last year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that the closure of polling places across the state had made it more difficult for Black voters to cast their ballots.

In 2005, after Mehlman’s mea culpa to the NAACP, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that he found the RNC chair’s remarks disingenuous: “My guess is that Mr. Mehlman’s apology was less about starting a stampede of blacks into the G.O.P. than about softening the party’s image in the eyes of moderate white voters.” For all of Bush’s campaign rhetoric about compassionate conservatism and his focus on Hispanic outreach, his Republican Party had remained as devoted as ever to the cause of suppressing the franchise of people of color.

“If the apology was serious, it would mean the Southern strategy was kaput,” Herbert wrote. “And we know that’s not true.”

The Republican Choice 3

Donald Trump’s election came only three years after an RNC-commissioned report called for a new, more welcoming approach to immigration from the party.


THE 2010s

The loss of the 2012 election prompted a crisis of confidence among GOP leadership.

“I was close to RNC chairman Reince Priebus. He came to me right after the election and was like, ‘We need to do some soul-searching,’” Henry Barbour, a Mississippi political strategist, told me recently. Along with four others, he would go on to author what became glibly known as the 2012 Republican autopsy report — officially the “Growth and Opportunity Project” — that placed the GOP’s institutional problems in stark terms: “Many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”

Yet three years after the report’s publication, the GOP nominated Donald Trump, an anti-immigrant, race-baiting candidate. “How did people abandon deeply held beliefs in four years? I think the only conclusion is they don’t. They didn’t deeply hold them. They were just marketing slogans,” Stuart Stevens said. “I feel like the guy working for Bernie Madoff who thought we were beating the market.”

Priebus, who served as Trump’s chief of staff, did not respond to my requests to talk about the report he commissioned, and what has happened in the party since.

What has happened is a circling of the wagons around Trump and his race-baiting rhetoric and policies. Gone are the days of articulated philosophies like “compassionate conservatism.” Now, the GOP relies on contrarianism to distinguish itself and stoke good feelings among its core members. Just look at the ease with which ideologically driven leaders like former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have been cast aside. Romney called Russia “our number-one geopolitical foe,” yet the party is now led by a president who repeatedly heaps praise on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The one thing that the party has stayed true to is its reliance on the politics of race and racism. While membership in the party wanes and America grows more diverse, the GOP has become practiced at speaking to its core members’ desire to maintain a white-centric American society. Trump’s appeal relies heavily on attacks against the media and “PC culture,” the medium and mode of expression, respectively, of a diversifying country.

[Related: There’s A Huge Gap In How Republicans And Democrats See Discrimination]

Republicans know the bargain they’ve made. A 2007 Vanity Fair profile of Arizona Sen. John McCain during his presidential run speaks to an acute awareness that the short-term strategy of placating a white base would be damaging to the GOP’s long-term demographic expansion. In the story, McCain is asked about the political ramifications of the immigration debate: “‘In the short term, it probably galvanizes our base,’ he said. ‘In the long term, if you alienate the Hispanics, you’ll pay a heavy price.’ Then he added, unable to help himself, ‘By the way, I think the fence is least effective. But I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want it.’”

During his 2010 Senate reelection campaign at the height of the Tea Party movement, McCain cut a TV spot meant to annihilate any ambiguity over immigration that he might have expressed during his presidential run. In the ad, McCain strolls along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying “Complete the dang fence,” to which a white sheriff responds, “Senator, you’re one of us.” It is perhaps the least subtle advertisement involving a politician since Bob Dole and Britney Spears appeared in that 2001 Pepsi commercial.

The post-2012 election report urged Republicans to return to what sounded a lot like Bush-era immigration stances and semantics: “We are not a policy committee, but … we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

The strategist types I spoke with all seemed in agreement on the wisdom of this: “You grow a party with addition,” Barbour told me. “Politics is ultimately about addition, not subtraction,” Stevens said. “It’s completely dumb and destructive for their interests every time you say you’re going to target a smaller and smaller pool of voters to win,” was former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd’s take. Both he and Rove seemed irritated at what they thought was a popular misrepresentation of their infamous “base strategy” that used issues like same-sex marriage to generate the high turnout of core Republican constituencies, like evangelical voters. “You win an election by having enthusiastic turnout in your base, by swiping people from the opposition and doing well among the independents,” Rove said. To suggest otherwise was “ridiculous.”

So, had other Republicans misinterpreted that strategy as an excuse not to go after voters outside the traditional GOP core? Oh, yeah, absolutely.” Rove answered. “Look, we lost the popular vote in 2000. What were we going to do, win again that way?” Trump had, I pointed out. “Yeah, well, and look, it’s happened five times in American history,” Rove said, reeling off the dates from memory. I asked whether he was saying it’s a fluke of history. “Oh, yeah,” he replied. So, Trump would need to win the popular vote in order to win this time around, I asked, knowing I’d pushed a little too close to the present day.

“Look, stop it, stop it, stop it,” Rove said. The conversation ended soon afterward.

The Republican Choice 4

In the midst of racial unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, Trump has called protesters “thugs” and provoked rebukes from a small number of Republicans.


Republicans with more immigrant-friendly views remain on the outs in an era when the party has focused on things like a family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. There are reports that Bush won’t vote for Trump in the fall. It feels as if a breaking point has been reached, given the pandemic and the paroxysms of protests and violence following the police killing of George Floyd. Trump’s leadership has been called into question, especially on race: 58 percent of Americans in a recent poll said they disapproved of how Trump was handling race relations in the country. The number is remarkable, if only for the fact that these days it’s difficult to get 58 percent of Americans to agree on anything except perhaps distaste for airline travel and love of Dolly Parton.

As the booming economy crumbled in the midst of the pandemic, so did many more moderate Republicans’ support for the president. As Trump tweeted about “thugs” and dispersed peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the move wasn’t reflective of “the America that I know,” while Bush issued a rare public statement sympathizing with the plight of Black Americans: “Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions.”

The country has taken note, and Trump’s poll numbers — for the time being — remain consistently below Biden’s, sometimes showing the Democrat with a double-digit lead. But there’s no sure thing in American politics these days. The election itself could be a chaotic, unpredictable enterprise.

The Republican Choice 5

The unprecedented circumstances of November’s election have prompted widespread concern that millions of Americans could be disenfranchised. Long lines at voting sites during primary voting in some states only exacerbated those fears.



The potential for disenfranchisement is very real in the upcoming presidential vote. The pandemic has given experts real concern that a poorly administered election could see thousands who want to vote essentially denied the right to do so. With that, seeds of distrust will be sown in the outcome. Just this week, Trump tweeted: “RIGGED ELECTION 2020: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

“I am most worried in places that have had the lowest levels of mail voting, where the election officials are least prepared, where they don’t have the resources and where the rules are also hotly contested. So, states like Wisconsin, states like Georgia, where the political culture has been voting in person, there have been a lot of fights over voting access, where the rules need a lot of adjustment in order to have fair access to mail voting,” Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center told me.

Democrats and Republicans are currently locked in legal battles in various states over the rules that will govern November’s election, which could largely take place by mail. It is a fractured process and the types of cases litigated cover mail ballot deadlines, early voting access, ballot collection, prepaid postage and a host of other issues. So many separate litigations are underway that each side has their own website with clickable maps showing what fight is happening in each state. “Across the country we’ve seen Democrats under the guise of [the] COVID-19 crisis in a wholesale way try to change the election to fit their election agenda items that have existed long before this crisis,” RNC Chair McDaniel said. “We believe that many of the lawsuits they have initiated would destroy the integrity of our elections, so we’re fighting back.”

One complication of mail-in ballots could arise during their validation, which often requires a signature. Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center told me that young and Black voters tend to experience higher rates of ballot rejection based on that requirement. “Young people and minorities are less likely to have a signature on file with the state,” he said. Plus, young people might have not developed a good cursive signature, and there might be an implicit bias on the part of poll workers if an African American or Hispanic name is less familiar to them. Marc Elias, who got his start as a recount lawyer and is now directing the Democrats’ broad expanse of election-related litigation, told me that differential rejection rates on ballot signatures “has always been the silent epidemic of American voting.” The COVID-19 pandemic just helped make more people aware of it.

[Related: Our 2020 National Polling Averages]

Von Spakovsky, for his part, told me that concerns for voting in person were overblown this year. “I think you can safely hold an election under these circumstances,” he said, pointing to the precautions taken in places like grocery stores, as well as for a recent election in South Korea.

But not all Republicans share that sentiment. “I think our messaging is all wrong, frankly,” Barbour said. There are legitimate concerns being expressed by Republicans over a largely vote-by-mail election, he said. But in the midst of a pandemic, people’s fears of infection should be taken into account. “Forget the political angle, eligible voters must be able to vote.”

Some Republicans do try to intimidate people at the voting booth, Barbour said. He recounted his own experience in the 2014 primary race between Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel.

“There was this runoff — we knew we were probably going to lose if we didn’t treat it like a general election,” he said of the Cochran campaign. They courted all voters, Black, white, and Democratic. “People were furious. ‘How dare y’all?’” Barbour said of the reaction to the strategy. “All these people came out from Georgia, saying, ‘We’re going to be at these polling places, and if you show up, you’re not going to be able to vote.’ I will say, as a Republican, I was embarrassed.”

“I kind of got a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side, seeing that happen, and I found it offensive and clearly wrong.”

CORRECTION (June 24, 7:43 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated that Nelson Rockefeller served as vice president in the Nixon administration. He was vice president under President Ford.

CORRECTION (June 24, 8:33 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated where the Watts neighborhood was that Romney was touring during his primary campaign. It was in Los Angeles, not Detroit.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here