Something unprecedented is happening at the Republican National Committee, and it’s a huge blow to the GOP’s African-American-outreach programs.
The RNC is losing its black staffers. All of them.
In the last six months, all four of the top black staff members at the RNC have left. These resignations have sparked every rumor from Donald Trump is running African Americans out of the party to the GOP has given up on the 2016 election. But the truth is a bit more complicated than the rumors, even though the final outcomes may ultimately be the same: The Republican Party is facing one of the most crucial elections in modern history, and the guiding voices within the party on African-American issues won’t be there to help.
After losing the presidential election in 2012, the Republican Party released its “Growth and Opportunity Project,” which was popularly known as the GOP “autopsy.” The 2013 report acknowledged two things: First, that the Republican Party was doing great during midterm elections and consistently losing in general elections; and second, if the GOP did not expand its demographic base beyond white people and Southern states, it would never win another presidential election.
To address this, it hired a group of young, dynamic and ambitious African-American Republicans who were tasked with not just changing the party’s image but also helping to foster candidates and policy on the ground for black voters.
In October 2013, the RNC hired Tara Wall, a former Mitt Romney media adviser, and Orlando Watson, a former Rand Paul staffer, and they were tasked specifically with reaching out to African-American media outlets to share the GOP message. The GOP later added Raffi Williams (son of Fox News political commentator Juan Williams) and Kristal Quarker Hartsfield, rounding out its African-American political A-team.
Given where the Republican Party was with black voters in 2012, the team was, by many accounts, successful. African-American turnout for Republican gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich, in Ohio, and Chris Christie, in New Jersey, increased in the 2014 midterms. Williams’ work got him named one of the 50 most beautiful by The Hill magazine in 2014. Quarker Hartsfield helped launch college Republican organizations at HBCUs across the country. And Wall and Watson became fixtures at the National Association of Black Journalists conventions, repairing years of frosty relations between black press outlets and the Republican Party. In fact, in many cases these four African-American RNC staffers were better-regarded than some of the media flacks in the Obama administration.
So What Happened?
The Republican Party is facing its first major election since the Republican autopsy, a chance to see if any of the programs implemented over the last three years will actually work on the big stage. So why would everyone leave now? Most political resignations come after an election season. The entire black staff of the RNC leaving during an election is the political equivalent of spending three years working on an album and then backing out of the promotional tour at the last minute.
Individually, the staffers’ publicly stated reasons are legitimate. Wall left last November to concentrate on other projects, Watson left in March to go to graduate school, Williams left for a job in the private sector and Quarker Hartsfield will likely join the staff of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. But it’s obvious to outside observers and sources within the RNC that something is going on.
First, the Republican Party seemed completely unprepared for these departures and “botched” the messaging, according to one insider. Rather than release a statement quelling rumors that this was a mass exodus, most party leadership has been mum on the issue. The silence from GOP leadership became so deafening that Williams took the initiative to give a statement to the Huffington Post to dispel any suggestion that his resignation was part of a larger staff shake-up.