GOP, in Strategy Shift, Prepares to Court Minorities

February 14, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(Washington, DC) – Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" of the 1960s, which provided the final push in transforming "the party of Lincoln" into the political party overwhelmingly favored by the great-grandsons of the old Confederacy, may have finally run its historical course.

Nixon's strategy, which played on racial jealousies, was a numerical success. It helped the GOP win five of the past eight presidential elections. It brought the two-party system back to the once solidly Democratic South. And, finally, in 1994, it helped the GOP end 40 years of Democratic rule of Congress.

This President's Day, however, Nixon's strategy seems politically threadbare and, with the growth of ethnic minorities producing a profound change in the country's demographics, potentially devastating to a party once on the verge of becoming the majority party in American politics.

The Republican Party got a glimpse of the political future last fall when a larger-than-expected turnout of minority voters helped the Democratic Party buck historic trends to gain five congressional seats and, perhaps more ominously for the GOP, to unseat two Republican incumbent governors in the deep South.

"It should be clear to GOP leaders after (the 1998) election that the Southern strategy has run its course," said Faye Anderson, a national vice chairman of the New Majority Council, a new Republican National Committee (RNC) project aimed at reaching out to minority voters.

Indeed, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only black Republican in Congress, acknowledged last week that it would take at least another decade for his party to win just 30 percent of the African American vote in national elections.

In the last three presidential elections, nearly nine out of 10 African Americans have voted Democratic. In last fall's off-year election, the GOP averaged only 11 percent of the black vote nationally, a key factor in the loss of U.S. Senate seats in North Carolina and New York.

Only one white GOP candidate anywhere in the country in 1998 got the 30 percent the GOP is shooting for in the next decade – George Voinovich of Ohio, who was elected to succeed John Glenn in the U.S. Senate.

But few Republicans in Congress have the kind of moderate record Voinovich built during eight years as Ohio's governor. And none of the Southerners who dominate the GOP leadership of Congress have such a record.

Watts, in an interview with USA Today last week, insisted that the GOP's problem is largely one of communication, that when Republicans use the word " conservative" it conjures up images of George Wallace, the onetime segregationist governor of Alabama, and Bull Connor, the police chief who used fire hoses on black protesters in Birmingham.

But "positive polarization," the benign-sounding term Nixon used for his strategy, has given the Republican Party an equally "hateful and frightening face" today, said Richard Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a national homosexual political group that uses Abraham Lincoln, the GOP's first successful presidential candidate, as a symbol of its cause.

The "Southern Strategy" is responsible for "ushering in spates of gay bashing, intolerance toward legal immigrants and declarations of 'a Christian nation,' essentially telling Jews and those outside of fundamentalist Christianity to get lost," Tafel said.

Likewise, Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, said, "The party is viewed as driven by a fanatic and intolerant minority whose rigidity is at odds with most Americans, including blacks."

Bond said the actions of the GOP and its leaders today send political messages to minorities that can hardly be characterized as misunderstandings:

RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson insisted there is "a cause for optimism" about GOP relations with minorities. He said their "shared legacy," dating back to the party's founding on an anti-slavery platform in 1854, is "a foundation on which to build" better relations.

In addition, the party's next presidential nominee could help it overcome the legacy of Nixon's "Southern Strategy" with a more moderate message such as "compassionate conservatism," a favorite term of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

But as long as candidates such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, now campaigning for Congress in Louisiana, feel at home in the GOP, the " party of Lincoln" is going to be viewed with suspicion by minorities.

"African Americans long have known that, as the late (Carter Health, Education and Welfare) Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris used to say, 'Just because we're paranoid does not mean that they're not out to get us'," said Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum Inc., an umbrella organization for dozens of civil rights groups.