Day four — or, maybe it's day 400; one loses track — of the weird War of the RNC All-Stars took place over on MSNBC today. This time, Michael Steele and Reince Priebus battled over minority outreach, inadvertently exposing the party's schism on issues of race, and why Republicans will have two outreach plans going forward: one to Latinos, and one to blacks.
Steele has been hammering Priebus since the weekend, arguing, in effect, that his tenure as chair of the Republican National Committee was more successful than Priebus'. Also that he could beat Priebus up, for some reason.
Today's topic was the plan Priebus unveiled on Monday, focused on rebuilding the party from the ground up. Included in the plan are tactics specifically intended to improve perception of the GOP among communities of color.
On Morning Joe, Steele noted that such outreach could be problematic given the party's push for voter registration restrictions last year.
Steele: There's still a lot of things that the party does not want to expose itself to. The words are nice …
Host Joe Scarborough: Like what?
Steele: Well, how does Reince Priebtus reconcile his approach and his agreement with voter reg policies that many in the black community view as anti-black, racist, whatever the term happens to be. You've got to reconcile how people feel about your policies, not just the fact that you're going to show up. It's what you say and what you do when you get there that matters most to people.
Later, an obviously annoyed Priebus was asked about Steele's comment.
Host Luke Russert: So former Chairman Steele is attacking you right there, saying that you're not doing enough in terms of minority outreach, that it's not a serious plan on your guys' part because of things like the voter ID laws, supported a lot of swing states that disproportionately affect a lot of minority voters. What's your response to him?
Priebus: Well, I'm not going to engage in an argument with Michael but, you know, the fact of the matter is you have to have the resources to be able to have an effective ground operation in minority communities. And one of the things that we've done at the RNC — and I don't think anyone argues with this — is that we've brought our financial condition back in order so we can actually hire hundreds of people across America, which is what this plan calls for. I'm not looking to hire two people down the hallway and call it inclusion, I'm looking to get into communities by the hundreds with paid people to make the case for the Republican party. I think really that's the heart of what we're trying to do at the RNC.
The first thing that's important to note is that Steele is correct. Voter ID laws are understood to negatively affect registration and voting in low-income communities and communities of color. And he's right that it's a bit incongruous to knock on a door and tell an African-American voter how great the GOP is while you've simultaneously got lobbyists at the State House limiting their right to vote — the Arkansas state legislature was just the latest to pass a voter ID law on Tuesday.
The second thing that's important to note is that Priebus doesn't directly respond to that question, as The Hill points out. Priebus gets in a dig of his own, noting that he's been focused on rebuilding the party's finances after Steele left it $24 million in debt. But his response is otherwise unsatisfying. Priebus suggests that the party is going to staff up, paying people to knock on doors and do outreach in communities of color. Maybe it will, but it's probably OK to consider that claim skeptically. The Republican Party's strong suit has never been grass-roots organizing; a new focus on such work would be as significant an overhaul as anything else Priebus has proposed.
The third thing that's important to note is that, politically and economically, it's a bad idea anyway. Direct voter contact is the best way to persuade voters on a message. But for the GOP, it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend a ton of money trying to convince individual African-American voters one at a time, primarily because the success rate is likely to be fairly low. This is presumably why voter ID laws exist, for the most part — because black voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Limiting black voters and low-income voters is limiting Democratic votes.
What's most interesting about today's exchange, though, is the contrast between the GOP's attitude on black and Latino voters. Over the past few months — since November 6 — the party has dramatically embraced immigration reform. Rand Paul expressed his support yesterday; today, a small but significant group of Tea Party congressmembers joined him.
There are probably two reasons for this enthusiasm. As Pew Research Hispanic Center indicated in a report last year, the number of Latino voters in the United States continues to climb, mirroring growth in the broader Latino population. That growth is faster than growth in the African-American community — meaning more voters long-term.
But immigration is also seen as a silver bullet to lock down the Latino vote — or at least to inoculate against the Democratic Party's current advantage. Support immigration reform, the theory goes, and the GOP has a fighting chance at siphoning Latino votes. No door-knocking required.
Responding to a follow-up question from Joe Scarborough, Michael Steele may have finally scored a point in his feud against Reince Priebus. But he also draw attention to what the GOP means when it says "minority outreach" — outreach to minorities who still might vote for Republicans.