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After the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans promised to do a better job of connecting with African-American voters. President Obama's huge margins with black voters in states including Ohio helped seal his reelection. Cleveland is one of the places where Republicans are trying to connect with African-Americans, but with a heated primary race underway, those efforts might not get very far. From member station WCPN, Nick Castele reports.
NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: At a Republican celebration of Martin Luther King Day in Cleveland, a big model of the Edmund Pettis Bridge surrounded the lectern. That was the site of Bloody Sunday where in 1965, civil rights marchers were beaten up by state troopers outside Selma, Ala. Organizers here emphasized that bridge metaphor. Brian Barnes with the Ohio GOP said the party gave him a charge.
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BRIAN BARNES: And that charge was to utilize or rebuild the bridges that had been abandoned over the years. You see, the Republican Party had written off our community for some time.
CASTELE: This is part of a broader outreach effort by Republicans also underway in such states as Michigan, North Carolina and Florida. Last summer, the party bought ad time on radio stations geared toward black audiences.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I just took my kids to family zoo day, and you know, I ran into a woman. We got to talking about the kids, the importance of family and community, and then she says she's a Republican.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A Republican?
CASTELE: George W. Bush won 11 percent of black voters in 2004. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 6 percent. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says the party has to do something different.
REINCE PRIEBUS: We need to build a party infrastructure that's in black communities all the time on a year-round basis, and that's what we did.
CASTELE: The party hopes to shore up support with current and former black Republicans, and they want to find other black voters who could see eye-to-eye with the GOP on such issues as support for charter schools. Priebus dismisses criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups that Republican-supported voter ID laws are making it harder for African-Americans to vote, saying there's a right way to implement the rules with buy-in from all sides. Republicans say it's not just about 2016.
PRIEBUS: This is a long-term effort to make sure that over time, we're doing much better in black communities.
CASTELE: Priebus spoke last year at the Cleveland home of LaVerne Jones Gore. She's run for office as both a Republican and a Democrat. She says it was refreshing to hear talk about building a diverse Republican Party.
LAVERNE JONES GORE: It shouldn't have been, but it was (laughter).
CASTELE: Jones Gore says she wants both parties to compete for black support, addressing schools, unemployment and violence at the hands of police, and she's always surprised when campaigns ask her how they can best reach black voters.
JONES GORE: I'm just startled that so many people don't understand. OK, so what does the African-American community want? We want what every American community wants.
CASTELE: The Ohio Republican Party says it has two staffers working with black voters, and they've enlisted local activists like Donna Walker-Brown. She heads a group called the Inner-City Republican Movement. She says she's not trying to change the votes of staunch Democrats.
DONNA WALKER-BROWN: I'm more into spending time with people that are disgruntled Democrats with this judicial system here in the city of Cleveland.
CASTELE: But another Cleveland activist, Basheer Jones, says the way the 2016 campaign has played out so far is overshadowing Republicans' efforts. He's Muslim and is troubled by Donald Trump's call for a temporary shutdown on Muslim immigration.
BASHEER JONES: What I try to tell the conservatives here is that in some shape or form, you're going to have to distance yourself from Donald Trump rhetoric because people are listening to Donald Trump, and they are very upset about it, about what he's saying.
CASTELE: As one Republican official put it, he knows the party won't win over lots of black voters overnight but hopes to begin doing better with them. Still, it will be an uphill slog. In some largely black parts of Cleveland in 2012, Mitt Romney didn't win a single vote. For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland.
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