Is There a Future for Black Republicans?

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Ramin Talaie / Corbis

Delegates from Texas cheer during the opening ceremony of the third day of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

It hasn't been the best time to be a Republican — and even worse if you are a black Republican. Take the experience of Ada Fisher. This fall, the Salisbury, N.C., physician ran for a state general-assembly seat representing a mostly white, working-class district. Several black college students who campaigned on her behalf were dissed by peers as "Uncle Toms." Then, in September, as Fisher walked toward the local Republican Party's booth at a county fair, a white man told her to go back to the Democratic Party booth "where she belonged" and to support Barack Obama. Never mind that the 61-year-old is a third-generation Republican. She also recalls hearing of white people urging friends to vote a straight Republican ticket — "except for the black woman."

Barack Obama's candidacy posed a peculiar challenge to the GOP's minuscule African-American membership. For some, it meant weighing a sense of racial pride against loyalty to conservative economic and foreign policy principles. Now, the GOP must decide how it can be relevant to an increasingly diverse electorate, particularly blacks. That will certainly be on the agenda as Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, vies to become the first African American to lead the Republican National Committee. In an interview with TIME last week, Steele acknowledged it will be "very, very tough" to boost black support for the Republican Party, particularly given the historic nature of Obama's presidency. Still, he says, "I want to take the party back to communities outside its comfort zone." (See pictures of the Republican National Convention.)

Black Republicans often boast that theirs is the Party of Lincoln and that it was the GOP during Reconstruction that propelled several blacks into elected office. Now, however, Obama is being cast as the new Lincoln. And though George W. Bush won a surprisingly large 11% of the national black vote in 2004 — partly by appealing to African Americans' fundamentally conservative social sensibilities — the numbers have once again becoming overwhelmingly Democratic, extending a trend that began in the 1960s. This year, 95% of blacks cast their vote for Obama. (See pictures of how Obama's election energized the heart of the civil rights movement.)

Don Scoggins, 63, has been a Republican for nearly 40 years. Yet on Nov. 4, he voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time. Scoggins is president of the 1,000-member Republicans for Black Empowerment, a Washington-based group that primarily aims to mobilize black conservatives. For months, he struggled over whether to support John McCain. The selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as McCain's vice-presidential running mate "was the nail in the coffin. She didn't exude any intellectual acuity," he says. Scoggins says his support for Obama wasn't just out of a sense of racial pride. But he was moved by Obama's forceful speech last June on personal responsibility, particularly among black men. "In the black community," Scoggins says, "the biggest problem is the deterioration of the black family. McCain wasn't interested in that — and I don't think he could ever have been the person to articulate it." Scoggins has faced criticism in some conservative circles for supporting Obama. But, he says, "Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. The Republican Party losing [is] forcing it to re-create itself into a party for the 21st century."

Scoggins says he'll remain in the Republican Party despite his vote for Obama. "I'm not going to be driven out by people who shouldn't be in the party in the first place," he says. "Blacks looked up to the party when it was the party of commerce. But the party," he adds, "has totally gotten away from that. It's now about abortion, gay rights and guns. It's frustrating."

Renee Amoore believes she knows the way to make the party more appealing to African Americans. The only black woman with a prime-time speaking role from the podium at this year's Republican National Convention, Amoore, 55, a suburban Philadelphia business executive, says that GOP outreach to blacks should be simple: you just have to ask. But, she says, "You have to do it 24/7. You can't woo people only during election time." She has urged Republicans to buy advertisements promoting Republican candidates on black-oriented television and radio stations, locally and nationally. She also runs the Pennsylvania New Majority Council, which aims to boost GOP support among people of color. During Tom Ridge's 1994 Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign, Amoore recalls, she took him to some of the bleakest areas of north Philadelphia. "This is what our candidates need to see — how people are living, and how they can help those people," she says. Amoore believes Ridge's visit helped him win a significant share of black votes in Philadelphia.

Michael Steele does not diminish the power of the Obama victory. "As a black man, of course I am very proud of his accomplishment," Steele says. "It is at once uplifting — of not only a people but a nation — and sobering in light of the work that remains to be done to address the systemic erosion of black wealth, health and opportunity." But Steele predicts that Obama as President will find it difficult to appease his more liberal supporters as he is forced to moderate views on the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other issues.

Steele says if he is selected as the RNC's chairman in January, he will move swiftly to temper the party's tone, using the model of Ronald Reagan, who, he says, "made it cool to be a conservative." But one of Steele's more daunting mandates will to be to broaden the GOP's base of black voters. "I'll tell local chairmen, 'If you want to be chairman under my leadership, don't think this is a country-club atmosphere where we sit around drinking wine and eating cheese and talking amongst ourselves. If you don't want to drill down and build coalitions in minority communities, then you have to give that seat to someone who does."

That will be a particularly difficult challenge during an Obama presidency. But Steele says that people have to be reminded of the origins of the things over which they take issue with the GOP. Many blacks, he says, "look at the party as this bastion of racism, which it isn't. Democrats have to keep defining us as racists because that's how they stay in power. But just look at the inner-city school systems and the poverty levels that have been high for years. It's systemic, and you can't blame Republicans for that. I haven't heard Barack Obama talk about the recidivism rate among youth in the prison system, or drug addiction. I don't know what he's going to do. But I know we're going to be developing strategies that put us in places where we need to talk about entrepreneurship. We're going to offer something more."

See pictures from the historic Election Day.

See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.