GOP Minority Outreach: 'Future Majority Caucus'

After the 2012 election, many Republicans admit they need to do more to reach out to minorities. The party recently launched a campaign called the 'Future Majority Caucus,' to recruit women and people of color to seek state offices. Host Michel Martin speaks with Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee about the effort.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, he's been to space four times, but now NASA administrator Charles Bolden's mission keeps him closer to Earth. He's helping young people take off in science, technology, engineering and math. He is the latest in the series of Black History Month conversations that we've been having with people who are excelling in the STEM fields, and we'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we just wrapped up a long election season, but for top political leaders it is not too soon to be thinking about the future, and for Republicans that means figuring out how to win minority votes. Last week the GOP announced an effort to recruit more ethnically diverse and more female candidates at the state level. Organizers are calling it the future majority caucus.

It is led by former Republican National Committee chair, former White House counsel Ed Gillespie. It's co-chaired by Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada. They are hoping it will bring more diverse candidates and perspectives to the GOP that will help it reverse the drubbing it received in the presidential election among minority and female voters in particular.

Here to talk more about this is Ed Gillespie. As we mentioned, he's the former chair of the Republic National Committee, but he's worn a number of hats over the years. He was a senior advisor to the Romney for president campaign as well. Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

ED GILLESPIE: Thanks for having me. Good to be back.

MARTIN: It's no secret, and there's been a lot of conversation since the election about the fact that the GOP didn't do well with Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, women overall. I don't know if you want to hear the numbers again. I'm sure they're kind of painful to hear.

GILLESPIE: They're engrained in my mind.

MARTIN: Engrained in your mind. Obama won 93 percent among African-Americans, 73 percent among Asian-Americans, which was noteworthy because that vote was much more split four years ago; 55 percent among women. Is there anything you want to add to all the conversations that we've been having since then about why that happened?

GILLESPIE: Well, there's not much I can add to why that happened. There's a lot of retrospective going on right now, but this has been trending this way for some time, and the fact is the Hispanic share of the electorate has been jumping about two percentage points each election cycle for the past decade. Our share of that electorate as Republican candidates on a national level for nominees has been declining since President Bush had a 44 percent high water mark in 2004, but we declined in 2008.

In 2012, Governor Romney got only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, and as you noted, our share of the Asian-American, African-American votes, very low. And you know, I'm not a math major, but when you're getting a smaller percentage of a growing share of the electorate, you need to address that.

MARTIN: Is this tone or policy?

GILLESPIE: I think largely it's tone and effort. I believe that, you know, many Americans of Hispanic descent, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, women voters, are center-right in their orientation politically and are open to a message about economic growth and opportunity. But we have to carry that message into, you know, different communities and campaign in places where we haven't been accustomed to campaigning.

And I do think that tone is important, how we talk about issues matters, and how it's heard.

MARTIN: So let's talk about tone. What is your plan to address conflicting messages that maybe party leaders, like yourself, want to give on one hand, but then other people who are important in conservative circles, like Rush Limbaugh, are giving on the other? You might remember during the last cycle when former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele criticized Rush Limbaugh's tone.

He was the one who was criticized and he was the one who apologized. So do you have a strategy for addressing matters of tone? And he's not the only one. I mean there are members, for example, a sitting member of Congress making public comments about Michelle Obama's figure which were very offensive to a number of people. He apologized. But there have been state party people, county party people, making comments, watermelon jokes and things of that sort.

Do you have a strategy for that?

GILLESPIE: Yeah, I think one thing, we need to be more positive in terms of how we talk about our agenda. We talk a lot, and it's kind of the nature, when you're an out-of-power party, to talk about what you're against, but we need to do a better job, I believe, talking about what we're for. So we've spent a lot of time talking about how we're against illegal immigration. Sometimes that gets shortened to just being against immigration.

Sometimes that's perceived as being anti-Hispanic, and I think that if we were to talk about how we are for welcoming people to this country who come here to make a better life for themselves and for their children, they contribute to our economy, they become great Americans, we welcome immigrants to our country. By the way, this is not some theory or something I read in a book. My father came here at the age of nine on a boat from Ireland.

He was a great American, a small business owner. He won a Silver Star for his adopted country in World War II, was shot through both his legs by Nazi bullets, and so he was a great American. I know this from first-hand experience and when we talk about that and those opportunities and freedom and growth and welcoming people - obviously every country has a right and indeed an obligation to secure its border, but we ought to talk about welcoming people into the party and the need for, you know, positive steps on immigration.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Ed Gillespie. He's currently serving as chair of the Republican State Leadership Committee. He's talking about that group's effort to recruit more diverse candidates, particularly at the state level. Why the state level?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, you'll see tomorrow night we have - U.S. Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the State of the Union response. I like to remind people, you know, that - I guess it was five years ago now that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio was State House Speaker Marco Rubio. And the fact is that the State House, the State Senate, those tend to be kind of the first steps on a political escalator and it's an opportunity for us to bring people into elected office and to help elect them at the State House level.

We've had some success, you know, last cycle. We recruited 175 women and 125 Hispanics to run for State House and Senate. We're expanding that. We're recruiting African-Americans, Asian-Americans to run. And we believe that, you know, we want to have people in office as Republicans who more accurately reflect the growing diversity of our nation as a whole.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about that? You've several times - we've both used the word diversity, but is that - but what you really mean is Latino candidates? I mean, it just seems as though there are some coded messages being sent. I'll give an example. During the Republican National Convention, when former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, you know, a high regarded figure within the party, talked to ABC's Diane Sawyer he said that the good news is that Latino voters and Asian voters, I would say, share many of the values that conservatives embrace about the family being the most powerful political unit in society, the need to reform education so there's access to opportunity, small business driving economic prosperity, a strong national defense, all of those things, and they are shared values.

I mean is that a way of saying that African-Americans don't share those values?

GILLESPIE: I don't believe that's at all what the governor meant. The fact is, to a certain extent this is a matter of triage, Michel. You know, if you look at - we had 44 percent of the Hispanic vote as recently as 2004. It is the fastest growing segment. Actually, Asian-Americans, you know, percentages may be faster growing, but in terms of the percentage of the electorate and the raw numbers, that is, you know, the Latino vote is an area where we probably can make the fastest gains fastest.

MARTIN: Why is that?

GILLESPIE: Because, you know, as recently as 2008, like I say - I'm sorry, as recently as 2004, they voted for a Republican, 44 percent in a national election.

MARTIN: But it's also true that the share of African-Americans who've earned college degrees has doubled over the last 10 years, for example. This is a largely native-born population. I mean is the impression - is the other impression being made here that, is that a growth opportunity or have you essentially written off the African-American vote?

GILLESPIE: No, I think it's a huge growth opportunity, and when I was chairman of the Republican National Committee, I made it a priority to increase our share of the African-American vote, and you know, we did - President Bush, in addition to increasing his share of the Hispanic vote, increased the share of the African-American vote. It was from nine to 11 percent. You know, that's nothing to - we should do a lot better.

It's unfortunate we're in a situation of kind of bragging about getting to 11 percent of an important segment of our electorate, but we can do much better.

MARTIN: Well, you have in state races. In fact...

GILLESPIE: In state races, without a doubt. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...even allegedly conservative, you know, states or like Florida, for example, where state, you know, candidates have gotten, you know, in the high 20s in off-year elections.

GILLESPIE: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: But, somehow, in the federal elections, those backslide - which leads me to one other question.

GILLESPIE: Yeah.

MARTIN: This is a sensitive issue and I hope you don't mind my raising it, but when an African-American or a Latino politician is elected, oftentimes, members of those groups evaluate whether that person is someone who they deem to reflect their values and whether they believe sympathizes with and respects their history. And, sometimes, people have the experience of someone like Colin Powell, for example, who is highly regarded by both African-Americans and white voters and yet they find that when he departs from kind of the party orthodoxy on some issues is then ridiculed by other members of the party. And they look at that and they think, what does that mean? Does it mean that someone I value cannot be valued by the broader party, in general? Do you understand what I'm asking you and is there - is that something that's been discussed, particularly among the candidates who you've recruited and with whom you try to work?

GILLESPIE: Well, you know, I believe that a lot of these values we talk about are universal in nature and that - I've always said, you know, I think we have to be - always have to be careful when you're talking about kind of the electorate in segments of by race because I, as a - you know, a father, care about my children and their education and their health care and their job opportunities. I believe that's true of African-American dads and Hispanic dads and...

MARTIN: Well, that's certainly true, but when you have someone like General Colin Powell, who is then ridiculed by a former, you know, governor and an important strategist like John Sununu and who is sort of ridiculed as saying he's only voting on the basis of race, I just wonder what message that sends and if you've talked about that with some of your candidates about it.

GILLESPIE: Yeah. I - look, I have great respect for General Powell - Secretary Powell. Disagree, obviously, with how he voted in the last two elections, but he's someone that I believe is - a lot of Americans rightly look up to, including me. I wish he would vote Republican. I hope he votes Republican in the next election.

I think the key - this gets back to my point about, you know, how we talk about issues and how we reach out and how we are making clear that we welcome into our party, you know, people from every segment of our electorate and we need to carry that message. One of the reasons that I wanted to recruit people to run for state House and state Senate that does - that reflect the diversity of our country is because, you know, as I mentioned, my father being an Irish immigrant. I'm Catholic. I always joke, I was born a Democrat, but I've seen my fair share of politicians and elected officials at Knights of Columbus halls and St. Patrick's Day parades and people identify with someone they can relate to and I would like to have more of those folks relatable in the Republican Party running for office.

MARTIN: I hope you'll come back and talk more about that.

GILLESPIE: I would like to.

MARTIN: Ed Gillespie is the chair of the Republican State Leadership Committee. He's a former chair of the Republican National Committee, a senior advisor to the Romney for President campaign and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Mr. Gillespie, thanks so much for joining us.

GILLESPIE: Thank you for having me.

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MARTIN: Coming up, Charles F. Bolden grew up black in the segregated South but his parents still taught him to reach for the stars, something that led him to a career as a pilot and astronaut and now the administrator of NASA.

CHARLES BOLDEN, JR.: I am a very proud African-American and I have always been very proud that I was able to overcome what some people would consider adversity, but I always considered them opportunities to excel.

MARTIN: NASA chief Charles Bolden is the latest in our series of conversations with African-Americans in science, technology, engineering and math. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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