ATLANTA (AP) – On the campus of Morehouse College, a small group of students are at the center of an effort by Georgia Republicans to build support among minorities ahead of major federal and state elections next year. The state party is hoping the recently re-chartered chapter of the College Republicans at Morehouse will be the catalyst for other such groups at the state's historically black colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, the party in recent weeks hired a director of minority engagement who is traveling the state to meet with community groups and talk about pocketbook issues like the economy and health care costs.
"We don't need to rebrand, we need to be more forthright about talking about our principles,'' said Leo Smith, the party's new director of minority engagement, adding the party will only benefit from having new ideas and fresh perspectives. "You don't do this kind of work of inclusion to stay in power. You do it to become better in delivering solutions.''
Smith joined the staff five weeks ago as part of a broader $10 million effort launched earlier this year by the Republican National Committee to send hundreds of party workers into minority communities across the country to reach voters who overwhelmingly supported Democrats in 2012. The effort was among a list of recommendations resulting from a look at recent election losses for Republicans.
Georgia population projections illustrate what's at stake for both Republicans seeking to keep control of state government and Democrats looking to rebuild. Democrats see hope in changing demographics that could help them regain a foothold in state politics after Republicans claimed every statewide office in 2010.
By 2030, Georgia's demographics are expected to shift with blacks and Latinos together representing 45 percent of the state's residents _ up from about 39 percent in 2010, according to the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. During that same time, the state's white population is projected to decrease from nearly 56 percent in 2010 to roughly 47 percent in 2030.
Democrats say they feel better positioned to draw in those minority voters.
"They can open up a chapter in every corner,'' said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. "But black voters, just like any other voters, vote on policy. And Republican policies are not good for African-American communities, Latino communities or any other group as far as I'm concerned.''
While Democrats make their case, Republicans will be doing the same. The group of 12 Morehouse students will soon be making plans to visit other HBCUs in metro Atlanta and eventually around the state to drum up support for more local College Republicans' organizations.
"You can't say Republicans don't care about minorities and that our values don't align with minorities,'' said junior Michael A. Roundtree Jr., who is chairman of the College Republicans at Morehouse. "I think we have to look deeper at our values and convey the conservative message just a little better.''
Roundtree, 19, comes from a family of Democrats in Chicago and says it's having personal conversations, talking about shared experiences like how a person's family lived on a budget, that can make a difference.
"It's just the way we try to connect with people,'' he said. "A balanced budget in the government directly relates to what your parents did while you were growing up.''
And that's what Smith is doing when he meets with at least two groups a week outside the metro Atlanta area, sharing Republican principles while building up a grassroots network of supporters. Smith said the Morehouse group represents an important step.
"More and more people are starting to get inspired and feel a little like the environment has become safer for black conservatives to speak out about their value systems,'' Smith said. "lack Americans have achieved much and have been the examples of civil rights for many subgroups of people, and we will continue to have that kind of leadership.'
*Pictured above is Leo Smith.