African-Americans have probably never enjoyed the profile they do in North Carolina’s Republican Party.
Hasan Harnett, the state chairman, is black.
So is Ada Fisher, one of the state’s two elected members of the Republican National Committee.
And the state director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is Charlotte’s Earl Phillip, the party’s former state director for minority engagement.
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Yet all three have their work cut out to attract more black voters to their party or, in Phillip’s case, to his candidate. It’s a task that even Sisyphus, the mythological boulder pusher, would not envy.
Fewer than 2 percent of North Carolina’s registered Republicans are African-American. Eighty-three percent are Democrats while most of the rest are unaffiliated.
One poll last fall showed Trump winning 25 percent of the black vote. But that was widely considered an outlier. Surveys by the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, have shown Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump nationally 91 percent to 4 percent among black voters.
Fisher, of Salisbury, doesn’t put a lot of faith in polls.
“Don’t be too sure people aren’t going to vote for him based on polls,” she says.
Fisher has just finished compiling a 32-page history called “A Short History of African Americans in the North Carolina Republican Party.” It traces their influence to the founding of the state party during the Reconstruction years of the 19th century.
“This is truly a party where black people have been engaged for a long time,” says Fisher.
Though a lot has changed with both parties over the decades, Fisher believes the history can help lure black voters to the 21st-century GOP.
“You use it to show is that there’s room for you in the party,” she says. “There are lots of opportunities for leadership. There are lots of opportunities for participation.”
Harnett, who lives in Harrisburg, says the party is trying to grow the number of black supporters, in part by reaching out to professional organizations. He also plans events surrounding February’s Black History Month.
“One of the ways we do that is by telling our story and letting people know that Republicans do care,” he says. “We’re all about making improvements in our community, in our family. We believe Republican policies help black families become more empowered.”
Harnett acknowledges that progress is incremental. But he says around 50 African-Americans attended an event in Durham last month to watch the last GOP presidential debate.
“I would say there’s a very strong interest from black Americans who are excited, and some of them may be reserved in terms of expressing their excitement,” Harnett says.
“But nonetheless they come up to me and whisper how excited they are.”