Published January 14, 2015
Herman Cain (search) is a well-to-do black businessman with a strong belief that the Democratic Party that blacks embraced during the civil rights struggle has swung too far to the left.
That is why he is running for the U.S. Senate this year as a Republican.
More black Republicans are running for office in Georgia this year than ever before, and black candidates in other Southern states are also finding that declaring for the GOP is more accepted than it was just a few years ago.
It is a small shift that Republican activists say could pay big dividends if it continues.
"It doesn't mean the majority of blacks will be voting Republican anytime soon," said Atlanta GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "But if you can move the percentage of blacks who vote Republican from 5 percent to 15 percent, you will change the outcome of a lot of close Southern elections."
That may be why the Republican National Committee (search) has an office dedicated to courting black voters and candidates, and has several blacks running in high-profile races.
In North Carolina, Winston-Salem City Councilman Vernon Robinson is running for Congress with campaign mailings likening himself to the state's arch-conservative icon: "Jesse Helms is back! And this time he's black."
In Georgia, a record 14 black Republican candidates are seeking legislative seats. Among them is Willie Talton, who is running unopposed for the House and plans to take office in January as the first black Republican lawmaker in the Georgia Legislature since Reconstruction.
Georgia's slate also includes Dylan Glenn, a young black political operative with ties to President Bush (search). Glenn is running for Congress.
Two black Republicans are on the ballot in Tennessee this year. And in Florida, Rep. Jennifer Carroll of Jacksonville became that state's first female black Republican legislator when she was elected in 2003.
What is driving some blacks to abandon the party most closely associated with civil rights to join the more conservative party?
One reason given is the improving economics of black households.
In Georgia, for example, black household income still trailed that of whites in the 2000 census. But the median income in black households rose faster than that of white households over the past three decades — 655 percent to 469 percent.
"It's not just people who've already moved into the middle class, but people who are trying to move up economically who are deciding that they are better aligned with many of the Republican candidates," said Senate candidate Cain.
Another factor is that to many younger voters, the civil rights struggle is just something they have read in history books, said William Boone, a political science professor at historically black Clark Atlanta University.
"Look at the age category of these folks. Many of them are folk who are several generations removed from the civil rights movement and have a different view of what the world is all about," he said.
For some blacks, there is a sense that Democrats have taken them for granted for years.
LaRon Bennett Sr., a black businessman from Glynn County who is running as a Republican for county commission, said Democrats "used fear and intimidation to keep blacks in the party, painting the picture that, in essence, they were the only alternative. You don't have any place to go."
In the Republican Party, "there's a great willingness and eagerness to have good, solid, sound minority candidates," Bennett said.
The party's civil rights record might not be flawless, he added, "but today I think the party has changed significantly, and is changing."
For others, there is a belief the Democratic Party does not speak for blacks on some issues.
Cain, who opposes abortion, said he believes a majority of black voters take a similar view on that and other issues of family values.
Boone, the political science professor, is not ready to go that far, but said the experts are mistaken when they categorize all blacks as liberal.
"The black folk we've chatted with indicate they are against abortion. They are prepared to talk about choice, but whether they would condone abortion, the answer is no," Boone said.
Will white Republicans vote for a black candidate? And will black voters support a Republican? Georgia's July 20 primaries and the Nov. 2 general election will help provide answers.
Emory University political science professor Merle Black said he believes most blacks will continue to support Democrats.
"This activity is concentrated among a relatively small number of conservative blacks," he said. "The vast majority of African-American voters are Democrat. I haven't seen much evidence of substantial growth of black Republicanism in the state."
Bobby Kahn, Georgia's Democratic Party chairman, agreed.
Every election cycle, the Republicans "try to prove they're an inclusive party, notwithstanding the domination by white guys. But then their policies and tactics seem to contradict any effort at inclusion," he said. "This is symbolic and nothing more."