WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party's nearly nonexistent relationship with black voters may improve in a decade or two, but not any time soon, said Artur Davis, a prominent African-American politician who held congressional office for eight years as a Democrat but switched his allegiance to the GOP this year.
"To me, the Republican pathway is with white blue-collar voters and with Hispanics. I think there is substantial room to grow the Republican Hispanic vote and the Republican white blue-collar vote. I do not see significant room in the next election cycle or two or three for Republicans to grow the African-American vote," said Davis, who represented Alabama's 7th District from 2003 to 2011.
Davis has since moved to Virginia and is mulling a run for Congress at some point as a member of the GOP in that state.
He spoke bluntly about the challenges facing his party with African-American voters.
"There's a big branding problem. One of the things that unified the Democratic base was the perception that Republicans are an insular party of older white men. I think the party has clearly got to deal with that perception," Davis said. "I think the party has to deal with the perception that it's insular, that it is trying to reconstitute a past that is not going to be rebuilt."
In a 30-minute phone interview, Davis laid out why he thinks the GOP should focus on Latinos and blue-collar whites in the short term: The biggest and most immediate growth potential is there, and support for Mitt Romney among black voters was bad but not worse than support for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.
"Mitt Romney got the minority vote that Republicans have tended to get since 1968. Republicans have tended to be in that 7 to 9 percent zone. Romney was 7 percent, McCain was lower, and [George W.] Bush was a bit higher," Davis said.
McCain received 4 percent of the black vote, while Bush won 11 percent in 2004. Davis was mistaken, however, in citing 1968 as the last high-water mark for African-American support of a Republican presidential candidate. Richard Nixon won 18 percent of the black vote in 1972, Gerald Ford received 16 percent in 1976, and since then, the black vote for the GOP presidential nominee has usually been between 8 and 12 percent, according to RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende.
Davis said that "the fact that Barack Obama is not running in 2016 will not change the fact that he will be aggressively campaigning for the Democratic nominee, and the Republican Party will be seen [by African-Americans] as the party that tried as hard as it could to stop him."
"In the African-American community, the Republican opposition to Obama is seen as racism," Davis added.
Davis makes a sound point about the likely greater potential for GOP growth with other groups. Although McCain won only 31 percent of the Latino vote and Romney dropped to 27 percent, Bush received 41 to 44 percent in 2004, according to exit polls. Latinos went from 9 percent of the overall electorate in 2008 to 10 percent in 2012, and are the fastest-growing minority in the country.
"These appear to be the weakest numbers we've put on the board with Hispanics in political memory, so there's room to grow there. Hispanics have a lot of social conservatives and a lot of economic conservatives," Davis said. "But the party cannot be seen as having a cultural resistance to Latinos or to immigrants. The party has to make it clear that they believe in legal immigration and in absorbing immigrants into the culture."
"For African-Americans to look at the Republican Party," Davis said, "the first thing they're going to need is to see African-Americans in prominent positions" such as GOP senators, governors and presidential candidates.
"Eventually that will happen. You will have an African-American [Republican] with the political talent of a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz," Davis said, referring to the Florida senator and the newly elected Texas senator.
"Today in the African-American community, there is a perception that blacks in the Republican Party are tokens. Well, people get that a governor or senator is not a token," Davis said, adding that African-American Republicans "need to go from fairly unknown and marginal figures to being leading lights."
"The party is going to have to show a willingness to engage issues that affect the African-American community," he said. "They used to be very comfortable talking about reducing poverty and using conservative principles to help the inner city. That side of conservatism needs to surface again. Even though most African-Americans don’t live in the inner city and aren't lower-income, there is a great sensitivity to those issues ... they want to vote for a party that shares that sensitivity."
Of his own political prospects, Davis said his considerations come down to whether he can raise enough money to run for office and whether he can "find a race where there is a vacuum," calling it "a process that might take a few years." The most likely possibility that has been noted is a run for the 11th District in Northern Virginia, currently held by Gerry Connolly, a Democrat.
More broadly, Davis said the GOP's bigger problem is that many voters "don't think that conservatism adds up to a coherent, workable public philosophy."
"You hate to make this a marketing branding problem at the end of the day, but it is," Davis said. "Conservatism has been made out to be a stodgy, dull way of looking at the world. The thoughtful, dynamic side of conservatism that [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal and [Indiana Gov. Mitch] Daniels represent has not been fully on display."
"The Republican Party is not going to turn into a moderate party, but it's going to have to be a conservative party that attracts moderate votes," Davis said. "Winning parties in American politics get people in the center to vote for them, and right now a very liberal Democratic Party is getting people in the middle to vote for them. It's an incredible irony, but it speaks to their political skill."