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Effort to pry Black voters from Democrats marks start of Republican convention

Other speakers worked to stoke fear of protesters in suburbs

Maryland Republican congressional candidate Kim Klacik addresses her party’s virtual convention on Monday.
Maryland Republican congressional candidate Kim Klacik addresses her party’s virtual convention on Monday. (Courtesy the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Convention/Getty Images)

Viewers tuning into the Republican National Convention this week will see a slate of Black candidates and GOP figures making the case that Democrats have failed Black voters. 

The appearances, which started Monday with House candidate Kim Klacik of Maryland, Georgia Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, seek to offer a counterpoint to the Democrats’ heavy focus on diversity at their own convention last week.

Speakers on Monday argued that Republicans, through lower taxes and promotion of self-sufficiency, had more to offer Black communities than Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his party. 

“Joe Biden believes we can’t think for ourselves, that the color of someone’s skin dictates their political views,” Klacik said. “We’re not buying the lies anymore. You and your party have neglected us for too long.”

That is a message Republicans have struggled to bring to the forefront as their standard bearer has expressed hostility toward the Black Lives Matter movement and embraced candidates with a history of making extreme statements on race and religion.  

Overwhelming majorities of Black adults — 88 percent, according to a recent Pew poll — have said they disapprove of Trump’s job performance. Republicans won less than 10 percent of Black voters in the 2018 midterms and the 2016 presidential election. 

With so much ground to cover with Black voters, some critics have wondered whether the Republicans’ public display of diversity was designed to appeal to a different constituency: white people who are uneasy with Trump’s record on race.

Former NFL player Herschel Walker, for example, called Trump a longtime friend and said he was personally insulted by suggestions that the president was a racist.

But the convention also featured numerous speakers arguing a Democratic victory would result in defunding police and lead to anarchy, and advocates were not buying the GOP argument.

“It’s almost hard to put into words the lack of authentic support when it comes to putting forward policies that build up the Black community,” said Chris Scott, political director of The Collective PAC, which seeks to elevate Black candidates.

“We see the Republican Party all too often try to make these attempts at appeals, with a very select few number of Black candidates and Black elected officials. But when you are looking at it from a voter’s standpoint, you can recognize what is actually real and what is more an attempt to pander for a vote,” he said. 

College funding, sentencing overhaul cited

Trump surrogates working with the Black Voices for Trump initiative have appeared across the country in recent weeks to tout legislation he signed to restore funding to historically Black colleges and universities and to reduce federal drug sentences.

“With President Trump in the Oval Office, Black Americans can rest assured that they have a true fighter and advocate working on their behalf,” Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso. 

The bipartisan criminal justice measure Trump signed in 2018 was hailed as a historic attempt to reduce mass incarceration of minorities, though critics say his administration has done even more to unravel criminal justice reforms.

In his keynote speech Monday night, Scott, the first Black senator from the South since Reconstruction, described himself as “a poor Black kid” whose grandfather was taught to cross the street when a white person approached and whose family “went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.” Against the odds, he said, he was elected to the House and the Senate by a majority of white voters in South Carolina. 

“We live in a world that only wants you to believe in the bad news: racially, economically and culturally polarizing news,” Scott said. His success, he added, was possible because of a culture that is always “bending back” toward fairness. He counted Trump among the righteous forces, citing pre-pandemic employment statistics for women, African Americans and Latinos. 

“President Trump built the most inclusive economy ever,” he said.

National Republicans say their efforts to recruit a diverse slate of candidates this cycle have paid off with record-breaking numbers of women and minorities expected to be on the ballot in November — 89 Republican women and 72 minorities so far, compared with 53 women who advanced to the general election in 2004. 

“Under President Trump’s leadership, Republicans delivered one of the best economies of all time and the lowest African American unemployment rate ever. There’s no one better equipped to do that again than President Trump,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Michael McAdams said.

But so far, the GOP has made few strides toward increasing its Black representation in Congress, where its only Black House member, Texas Rep. Will Hurd, is retiring this year. Only three Black House candidates — Florida state Rep. Byron Donalds, Texas Army veteran Wesley Hunt and Utah former NFL player Burgess Owens — and only one Senate candidate — Michigan Army veteran John James — are expected to be on the ballot in November in competitive or heavily Republican districts or states. Owens and James are also scheduled to speak at the convention. 

Recent polls have shown Owens in a close race in Utah’s 4th District against vulnerable freshman Democrat Ben McAdams, who has a more than 4-to-1 fundraising advantage. 

James was a prized Republican recruit to take on Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, but his poll numbers have been slipping, with Peters up 8 points in the most recent RealClearPolitics polling average in a state Trump carried by less than 1 point in 2016. 

So far, Donalds is the only Black Republican House candidate who has led a primary in a safe Republican district, where the winner is almost assured a seat in Congress. Donalds was leading a 9-way GOP primary field in Florida’s 19th District last week by less than a percentage point, a margin too close for The Associated Press to call the race, although the second-place finisher reportedly called Donalds to concede. 

Klacik lost special election in April

Klacik is running for the second time in the deep-blue 7th District in Maryland that Democrat Elijah E. Cummings represented for 23 years until his death in 2019. She lost a special election in April to fill Cummings’ unexpired term to Democrat Kweisi Mfume by 48 points. 

The GOP has nevertheless positioned her as a rising star since she filmed a viral campaign video in which she walked past boarded-up Baltimore businesses in a stoplight-red dress and matching stilettos. Such scenes, and the poverty and crime they conjure, are “the reality for Black people every single day,” after 53 years under Democratic leadership, she said.

The message dovetails with the GOP’s focus on acts of violence at protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and political unrest in cities controlled by Democrats, another theme of the convention. 

Jones, the Georgia state legislator who described himself as a “man of color” and a “lifelong Democrat,” spent more than seven minutes — an eternity in a virtual convention — detailing how the Trump administration has improved on what he described as Democrats’ failures to address issues important to the Black community. 

“The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation,” he said.

Shortly after Klacik’s appearance Monday, the convention featured Patricia and Mark McCloskey, a St. Louis couple who are facing felony charges after they were photographed waving guns at protesters.

During their appearance, they called Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush a “Marxist revolutionary.” Bush is likely going to Congress after defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent in a primary for a deep-blue St. Louis district.

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