WASHINGTON – After years of butting heads with the Republican Party, conservative Alan Keyes (search) said the GOP has no clue how to engage black voters, a key constituency that can be won over on the issues, but not with empty campaign promises or race-baiting.
“The Republican Party doesn’t do enough to support black [candidates] time and time again,” Keyes told Foxnews.com. “The Republicans tend to come in only when a candidate looks successful, and that’s not good enough. They have to build networks, and gain the trust of the community.”
Keyes, the only black Republican ever to run a viable bid for president, has been trying to energize the black vote since he left the field of presidential hopefuls during the 2000 primary season, months before then-Gov. George W. Bush received the nomination.
A staunch social conservative who speaks passionately against abortion, income taxes and public education, Keyes, 52, said his conservatism made him unpopular with African-Americans.
Others say his own party has treated the former Reagan administration official unkindly.
“I will say in defense of my party that I’ve been treated a lot better than [the Republican] Party treated Alan Keyes,” the Rev. Al Sharpton (search) was quoted as saying in a recent interview about the cold shoulder his presidential run is getting from other Democrats.
Keyes doesn't need Sharpton's sympathy. In fact, he invokes the names of Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson (search) and NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume (search) to win support for Black America's Political Action Committee, which he co-founded 10 years ago.
"With Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton stirring up black voters, I can't think of a better way a conservative can invest $5,000 in America's political future," Keyes said in a recent mailing to potential donors.
Since its inception, BAMPAC (search) has pumped over $1 million into black candidacies at the local, state and federal levels.
The group claims no affiliation with any party, rather it advances an agenda based on school choice, opposition to abortion, free markets, economic empowerment and social security reform.
“Our friends on the left write us off as conservative kooks, but what we got here are pretty common sense issues,” said BAMPAC President and CEO Alvin Williams.
“I think people engage us once they read our policy papers — they don’t walk away with the idea that we are subversive or anything. Especially with a younger generation coming of age, they are more objective,” Williams said.
Critics say black conservatives like Keyes and Williams are a tiny, practically non-existent minority, and will get nowhere as long as black voters see Republicans and the issues they stand for as untrustworthy, or worse, racist.
"It’s not like Alan Keyes has the pulse of the black population,” said David Bositis, a political analyst for the Joint Center on Economic and Political Studies (search), a left-leaning think tank for black issues in Washington, D.C.
"The center of gravity in the Republican Party right now is made up of white Southerners,” who are historically against civil rights, Bositis said. “By and large, [black voters] don’t trust the Republican Party and they don’t think the Republican Party is concerned with their interests."
Referring to the recent $350 billion tax cut ushered through Congress by Republicans, Bositis said any policies that include cutting taxes for the wealthy and leaving out breaks for the working poor are anti-black. Positions against quota and preference systems in schools and workplaces are also anti-black. The only Republicans that get the African-American community’s support are those who are more moderate on those issues.
“But [African-Americans] still aren’t going to vote for somebody they don’t trust, even if they like their ideas on the policies,” he said.
Rogers Johnson (search), majority whip in New Hampshire's state Legislature and a beneficiary of BAMPAC, laughs when he hears critics suggest Republicans are racist.
He said he "doesn't stick to the stereotype," and credits his success to his position on issues like privatizing Social Security benefits, school choice and cutting taxes, not the color of his skin.
"I got to this point not because of my color, but for who I am," he said.
Johnson said Democrats are afraid they are losing their grip on black voters, who are starting to realize "that you need to play both sides; if you want to be able to negotiate, you have to have representatives on both sides. That's becoming more and more apparent."
During the 2002 campaign, analysts noted lower turnout among black voters, but a greater willingness to vote Republican in key races, leading some to believe that perhaps Democrats are losing their historical grip on this voting block.
Keyes said his business is no longer affixed to the campaign cycle. Instead, he said he wants to do what the Republicans have neglected to do so far — work within the communities to spark interest in the issues, running the same candidates over and over again if necessary in order to be successful.
“You can’t just show up on Election Day asking for the vote when you haven’t been working to help the people build their communities,” he said.