Challenges remain as Tim Scott launches next phase of efforts to diversify the GOP

It was a feel-good evening inside the ballroom of a Washington, D.C., hotel.

A couple hundred conservatives were gathered last Thursday to celebrate the official launch of the Empower America Project, a new training program to prepare minority Republican politicians to run for elected office.

South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S Senate and a champion of the movement to diversify his party, delivered aspirational remarks.

“I’m excited about what we are going to see happen, not only today or tomorrow, but in the future: generations of conservatives who will look like America,” said Scott, who conceived of the Empower America Project. “That will be a good day.”

Kay Coles James, the first black woman to run the conservative Heritage Foundation — which underwrote the celebratory banquet Thursday evening — urged attendees to woo new Republicans “with your reason, with your logic, but most importantly win them with your heart and love.”

Jimmy Kemp, the executive director of the Empower America Project, decried efforts by “the media and lots of other folks” to paint “conservatives as heartless and mean and cruel.”

Wintley Phipps — a black conservative who founded and runs the U.S. Dream Academy, a national after-school program for the children of incarcerated parents — performed a rendition of “God Bless America” that brought attendees to their feet.

Phipps then proceeded to share the news that the Trump administration, in an effort to exercise fiscal discipline, had decided to cut off the Dream Academy’s crucial federal funding stream, threatening the program’s existence.

James said later in the dinner program, to a round of applause, that she would personally lobby the Justice Department to reinstate the federal funding, to a round of appreciative applause.

However, the episode spoke to the optics problems Republicans face as they try to expand the party’s base, which are playing out amid numerous other challenges.

In the U.S. House, Republicans stand to lose two of only 14 GOP women, plus their only African American lawmaker, to retirements in 2020 — and the pressure is on to replace them.

In the U.S. Senate, each judicial nominee with a fraught record on race makes it harder for conservatives to claim the mantle of a “big tent,” in spite of Scott’s personal pleas to the administration to put forth better choices.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, now under threat of impeachment, has a 4% approval rating with black voters, according to an Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey released this week.

In the same poll, two-thirds of all Americans said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of issues of race.

‘We have to be realistic’

Scott is not a stranger to the challenges of diversifying the party and overcoming less-than-ideal optics.

He has been talking for years about how Republicans need to rethink how they brand themselves and pitch their policies so as to create a more hospitable environment for minorities who would like to make the switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP.

Yet in an interview last Thursday evening, Scott insisted his biggest challenge wasn’t attracting diverse candidates to run on the Republican ticket.

Instead, he said it was a matter of “making sure the requisite skill sets and instincts that need to be honed for successful candidates happens before (they) start running,” so that more minority candidates are better positioned to actually win.

He hopes the Empower America Project will fill this void.

At last week’s boot camp, Scott helped coach nearly 60 participants to “learn their why” — what he considers the motivating factor behind every candidate’s decision to seek public office, and which he believes each candidate must be able to fully and powerfully articulate to voters.

Empower America Project leadership will whittle down the number of participants for subsequent boot camps. Well in advance of the November 2020 elections, organizers hope to have three to five candidates to promote and financially support.

Scott, the most prominent face behind the effort who almost single-handedly helped raise “seven figures” for the group in a three-month window, will offer himself as a resource to these chosen candidates on the campaign trail.

Candidates will be selected for endorsements based on their position on education — whether they support “school choice” and voucher programs — and their commitment to free-market principles.

Viability will also be a factor.

“We want to have a real impact, and part of what we have to gauge is, does this person have a shot to win?’” Kemp told The State. “We have to be realistic.”

‘It’s our fault’

The event last Thursday night was filled with conservatives who shared Scott’s theory that blacks and Latinos, women and millennials, were ready to serve in elected office under the Republican mantle — if given the chance and the skills to be competitive.

“The party needs to recognize black conservatives are putting themselves out there to run, and be supportive of that,” said Stephen Gilchrist, the president of the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce who traveled to Washington to attend the dinner.

“It’s that fear of the unknown, the fear of, ‘We’re not sure an African American could actually win.’ But in essence I would challenge that to say, if African Americans receive the same type of support any other Republican would receive, I think we’d see a tremendous difference,” Gilchrist, who is also serving on Trump’s 2020 reelection minority outreach task force, continued.

Beth Parlato, an attorney running as a Republican for an open seat in New York’s 27th Congressional District, agreed the party “has to do more” to promote women candidates.

She added, however, that “you can’t fault the party 100 percent because women tend not to vote Republican so we have to share what our values are … We have to get the word out, get them into the fold.”

Thirty-eight-year-old Tony Gonzales, a Latino Navy veteran running in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, said for him “it’s not only about race, but also about bringing youth and energy to the party.”

Among those who were in Washington to participate in the Empower America Project’s formal boot camp was Lerah Lee, a longtime educator from Charleston, S.C., who is now running in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District.

“This is not a secret,” said Lee, who is black. “I believe that every Republican will say we have not done a good job with messaging. We just haven’t. That is changing … But it’s our fault.”

Asked what she thought was the turning point for Republicans rethinking their strategy on messaging, Lee said she believed the impetus was Trump — that critics accusing him and the party of racism was a wake-up call for the GOP to do more to counteract that narrative.

In her remarks Thursday night, James, of the Heritage Foundation, offered a blueprint for circumventing that narrative and put herself on the record as the type of conservative who would spend money on social welfare programs.

“I stand with you, my friend,” James told Phipps, who had earlier in the evening made a pitch for donations to the Dream Academy now that Justice Department funding was set to go dry. “We are gonna claim that money and we’re gonna get it.”

It’s not clear yet whether James will be able to keep that promise.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.