For Black Republicans, An Election Complicated by Trump
It’s a swampy evening in Richmond and Garrison Coward is starting to sweat.
He’s making the rounds in a mostly white neighborhood called Windsor Farms, where the sidewalks are made of brick and streets are named after English universities.
Most people aren’t home or aren’t answering, depriving Coward of his chance to make his pitch: “equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes,” lower taxes, better technologies in schools. Coward is unflappably polite in the face of the usual campaign obstacles: a family interrupted at dinner, or a Democrat unwilling to hear him out.
Coward has door-knocked before in past jobs as a campaign aide to Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA), and as the Republican Party of Virginia’s political director.
Now the 29 year-old is a candidate himself -- one of two African American Republicans running for the House of Delegates in a legislature that has hosted just two black Republicans since Reconstruction, and none since 2004. Meanwhile, Democrats are running 35 people of color in the House, including 24 candidates who describe themselves as African American. All 21 current members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus are black Democrats.
Coward's campaign is emblematic of Republican efforts elsewhere. The party held this district, which stretches from stretches southeast from Richmand’s West End down to Midlothian, for most of the last 25 years.
But after President Trump’s 2016 win, Virginia Democrats flipped this seat and 14 others in the House of Delegates. Democrat Dawn Adams unseated incumbent Republican Manoli Loupassi by a few hundred votes.
Democrats are hoping to continue to channel anti-Trump enthusiasm this year, and are a few seats shy of unseating GOP control of both chambers of the General Assembly. If they succeed, the Republicans can't entirely blame the president. The GOP hasn’t won a statewide office since 2009, and has struggled to expand their base beyond rural areas to rapidly growing suburbs that are trending blue.
“I think the Republican Party here realizes that they cannot win another statewide election without doing better in the African American community,” said D.J. Jordan, an African American Republican running to unseat Peruvian-American Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Dale City) in Northern Virginia. “The math isn’t there.”
Jordan is a former journalist and GOP Congressional staffer who says his experience as a foster parent helped push him into politics. When Republican leaders approached Jordan about running, he accepted.
Jordan thinks the party has a real shot at winning some black voters. Around a quarter of African Americans describe themselves as conservatives . Jordan thinks they’ll like his emphasis on individual responsibility and criminal justice reform.
And he sees an opening this year. In February, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both admitted to wearing blackface when they were younger.
One obstacle for Republicans hoping to reach more minorities may be their own voters. Last year, primary voters selected Corey Stewart as their nominee for U.S. Senate, giving a national platform to a far-right former county supervisor known for his harsh immigration policies, ties to white nationalist Jason Kessler, and outspoken pro-Confederate views.
Republicans need to make up for lost time, according to Jordan.
“The Republican Party has done a horrible job of being engaged in the African American community on a yearly basis in a very real way,” he says. “And the Democratic Party has.”
Jordan thinks Virginia Republicans are on the right path. But their biggest obstacle may be the president; a recent Quinnipiac poll found 80% of black voters think Trump is racist.
Leah Wright Rigueur, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard who has studied black Republicans , says African American voters have generally responded best to Republicans who distance themselves from the national party.
“There is a real challenge in voting for a party that you perceive as hostile to your rights and to your community,” Rigueur said.
After the Civil War, the African Americans who could vote favored Abraham Lincon’s Republican Party. That changed with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Wright says the GOP needs its own transformational plan to win them back.
“They would need to propose something that is dramatic, larger than life and directly speaks to black communities issues and concerns in 2019,” Rigueur said.
That resonates with Democratic Delegate Lamont Bagby, who heads Virginia’s black caucus. Bagby says Republicans would need a wholesale change in identity to successfully court African Americans.
“The African American candidates that are running on the Republican side are so apologetic for running as a Republican, and it's not because they've done anything wrong,” Bagby said in an interview earlier this year. “It's because of what their party stands for.”
Garrison Coward says he doesn’t define himself by party. He says his vision of lower taxes and less regulation will resonate with voters of all stripes. But he acknowledges that the president doesn’t always help his cause.
“Look, I don’t agree with some of his antics on Twitter,” Coward said. “I think that some things that he says is just absolutely out of line.”
Coward also says some of Trump’s policies are working. And he thinks the president’s election helped spark “difficult conversations” -- conversations Coward would like to continue as an elected official. But to do that this year, he’ll have to talk over Trump, whose presence is larger and louder than just about anyone else in Virginia.