2020 saw Black voters and candidates alike turn out in droves. From Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D) successful campaign in Georgia to Jaime Harrison’s unsuccessful Senate campaign in South Carolina, it seemed Black voters and candidates were lining up on the left.
But while the Democratic Party tends to have a lock on Black voters, that bloc is not a monolith. And Black Republicans are confident their ranks will continue growing ahead of the midterms and the 2024 presidential election.
“So many Black Americans have been raised in a conservative way,” said Paris Dennard, national spokesperson and director of Black media affairs for the Republican National Committee. “When you think about Black conservatism, that is being a strong family. That’s having a lot of faith, being able to work hard and have a strong and safe community.”
This year, Black voters’ support for Republican candidates rose to 27 percent, up from 12 percent in November, according to a March Wall Street Journal poll.
Meanwhile, Dennard said, the RNC tracked more than 160 Black Republicans who filed to run for office; of them, 120 are still running. There were more than 80 who filed to run in the House of Representatives.
“There’s no doubt that come November, the road to retiring [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi is going to be paved with new Black Republicans coming to Congress,” Dennard said.
While the RNC remains neutral in primaries, Dennard mentioned there were several where Black Republicans are running that the RNC has been keeping an eye on over the past year, even in blue states such as Illinois and New York.
One of those candidates was Illinois Republican hopeful Jimmy Lee Tillman. While he only pulled in 5 percent of votes in the June 28 primary, Tillman said he thinks “the future is bright” for Black Republicans.
Being a Black Republican, Tillman said, is a “badge of honor.”
“The Republican Party was the party that fought to free slaves,” he said. “The gains that Black Americans have gotten in this country have always been under a Republican administration, no matter how you might feel about that Republican president.”
Under former President Regan, Tillman said, Black Americans saw Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a federal holiday. Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell to be secretary of State and former President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas as the second Black Supreme Court justice.
Tillman, an academy fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a firm supporter of former President Trump, ran on an “America First” platform against six other Republican candidates. Two were Black.
But Tillman said he wants to see more Black candidates running in the future.
“A lot of Blacks who are concerned about what’s going on in their county board, what’s going on in their school boards, what’s going on in townships should take up that mantle,” he said.
And that’s exactly what the RNC is focused on too — local elections.
The success of candidates like Albany City Commissioner Jalen Johnson, Mike Reichenbach of the South Carolina State Senate and Harriet Holman of South Carolina’s Dorchester City Council have the RNC confident in the party’s ability to build a strong Black coalition.
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity when you look at some of these new leaders that are emerging,” said Dennard. “The Black conservative movement is helping the entire conservative movement and the Republican Party.”
But Black conservatism and Black Republicanism are not the same, said Tasha Philpot, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.
Like Dennard, Philpot said there is a big part of Black conservatism that is based on faith. But there’s also no denying the racial tensions that impact U.S. politics and everyday life, she argues.
In many ways, Philpot said, the Republican Party is seen as more racially conservative and “downright hostile” toward African Americans than the Democratic Party — something that worsened during the Trump administration. That hostility often means Black conservatism is not translated into GOP support at the ballot box.
And having Black candidates like Tillman doesn’t really change that, either.
That’s partly because Black Republican candidates, Philpot said, tend to embrace deracialized or colorblind platforms and they often reject the idea of systemic racism.
“Typically in this day and age, Black Republicans are considered race traitors,” Philpot said, “especially the Herschel Walkers, the Tim Scotts, the ones that espouse the same type of racist rhetoric that the rest of the GOP expresses: anti-critical race theory and that we should just ignore the history of the United States because it makes people feel uncomfortable.”
“Those types of candidates tend to repel African Americans, because the vast majority of African Americans feel that systemic racism and see it unfolding on television, on the news and in their everyday lives.”
Both Dennard and Tillman vehemently reject the idea the Republican Party is racist, though Tillman acknowledged words like those of Illinois Rep. Mary Miller (R), who praised Adolf Hitler, as unacceptable.
Tillman remains confident the party is seeing a demographic shift, with more Black conservatives ready to hit the polls if Republicans can send the right message.
The only issue? The party may not be ready for that.
“Political parties aren’t altruistic organizations,” Philpot said. “They’re there to gain electoral control.”
And when it comes to the Republican Party, the last few years, especially, have seen an effort to suppress minority votes.
Philpot said that while Democrats need the Black vote in order to win in battleground states like Pennsylvania, it’s “been more efficient for [Republicans] to change laws to suppress Black voting.”
“There’s no real incentive for [Republicans] to attract Black voters,” she said. “The way that politics is playing out in this time and space, it would be to their detriment to deviate from that message of us versus them, Black versus white.”