At Conservative Gala, Trump Remarks Show Challenges in GOP Black Voter Outreach

February 27, 2024by Matt Brown, Associated Press
At Conservative Gala, Trump Remarks Show Challenges in GOP Black Voter Outreach
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives at the Black Conservative Federation's Annual BCF Honors Gala at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in Columbia, S.C., Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Golden and scarlet balloons adorned an entrance guarded by the Secret Service that led straight to a bar abuzz with excited reunions, a line of attendees waiting to take pictures at a photo wall and a spacious auditorium set to celebrate a unique subset of the conservative movement in downtown Columbia last weekend: Black Republicans.

The Black Conservative Federation’s honors gala convened around 500 largely Black conservative lawmakers, activists, pundits and donors for a formal affair. The mood at the Friday evening event was buoyed by its guest of honor, Donald Trump, whose appearance was part of an effort to show the former president’s affinity with Black voters.

“I’m thrilled to be here tonight with Crooked Joe Biden’s absolute worst nightmare: hundreds of proud, Black, conservative American patriots,” said Trump, who received a “Champion of Black America” award at the event, to applause from the audience.

Trump’s freewheeling comments throughout the night, at times received with enthusiastic applause and raucous laughter, were roundly condemned by Democrats and Black community leaders. Black media ridiculed and lampooned the event in real time during its broadcast. The divergent reactions to Trump’s remarks highlighted the often lonely efforts of Black GOP activists and the uphill battle Republicans have in making serious inroads with Black voters, who still hold highly negative views of the GOP, according to recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling.

“Black Americans are waking up to the reality that the Democratic Party has taken advantage of them, and the media and the party are terrified,” Black Conservative Federation President Diante Johnson said in a statement on Monday, responding to backlash over Trump’s speech.

“No amount of media deception or liberal race-baiting will sway the minds of Black voters who will cast their ballots this November for safer streets, a better financial well-being, a secure border, and a complete rejection of Joe Biden’s disastrous tenure,” Johnson said.

Normally held in Washington, D.C., the gala was relocated this year to Columbia, S.C. on the eve of the GOP Republican primary, where Trump handily dispatched the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley. It was a meaningful shift in venue. At a time when Republicans have signaled greater interest in making inroads with communities of color, the dinner served as an opportunity to highlight the GOP’s pitch to Black voters.

But for its attendees, who paid between $100 and $500 for a seat at the closed-door event, the gala also served as a homecoming for a segment of Black GOP voters who reject suggestions that the party and its leaders are racists. The event featured a litany of speeches and prayers by high-profile Black Republicans, with musical performances by a jazz band that covered tunes by John Legend.

“It’s grown tremendously since the beginning,” said Melanie Collette, a gala attendee and Republican county commissioner in Cape May, N.J.

Trump, she said, did not “take the traditional Republican attitude, which is, ‘We’re not going to get their votes anyway so let’s not even bother.’”

“The numbers are picking up (with Black men). And I just hope and pray that a lot more female Blacks will come to the light and come to the truth,” said Alvin Portee Jr., a Columbia resident who attended the gala in a suit and top hat bearing Abraham Lincoln’s face.

“I would say that the first Civil War was about Black people, and this is our civil war now,” he said.

In a winding speech, Trump claimed “the Black people like me” because of his numerous criminal indictments and mug shot taken as part of the ongoing election interference case in Georgia. Black people can relate to being criminalized like him, Trump said, because of systemic discrimination in the courts.

On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Trump’s comparison of his legal woes to systemic racism in the criminal justice system “self-serving.”

“It is repugnant and divisive to traffic in racist stereotypes that have the effect of tearing all Americans down,” she said during a press gaggle on Air Force One. “It is profane to compare the long, painful history of abuse and discrimination suffered by Black Americans to something totally different.”

Haley, Trump’s last standing presidential primary rival, called the gala speech “disgusting,” while President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond said the comments were “insulting,” “moronic” and “plainly racist.”

And civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton called Trump’s comments “an epitome of an insult to Black folks” and criticized the night’s attendees. “If any Black Republicans had any dignity they would denounce this characterization of Black folks by Donald Trump,” Sharpton said Saturday from New York.

“Don’t try and act like that is who we are,” he said. “That is who we were beat down to be. And Trump knows because he did that to five innocent [B]lack young men in this city,” he said, referencing Trump’s characterization of the now exonerated group of Black and Latino teens at the center of one of New York City’s most notorious and racially fraught controversies in the 1980s.

Yet frequently throughout his 90-minute appearance, the gala audience praised and reveled in the former president’s address. Black Republican leaders also received applause for criticizing Democratic policies on diversity and inclusion, economics, immigration and education.

“Here I stand before you being judged literally not by the color of my skin but the content of my character,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt, referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech. “Some people believe otherwise and think that people like us in this room don’t exist. So it’s up to us to tell the truth about what it is that we’re doing.”

The night’s high energy and impassioned rhetoric largely sidestepped the challenges facing Republicans in making their goals with Black Americans a reality. Black voters regularly back Democrats by margins around 90%, a higher rate than any other racial demographic. However, Black enthusiasm for President Joe Biden has slipped slightly over the past year.

Only 42% of Black adults said they approve of Biden in a January AP-NORC poll. That’s down from the 56% of Black adults who had a favorable view of Biden in December. Only 25% of Black adults had a favorable opinion of Trump in December.

Many attendees were optimistic that they may finally be gaining greater attention and influence in both realms.

Vivian Childs, a GOP activist and business owner who traveled to the event from Warner Robins, Georgia, said she took no issue with Trump’s sometimes clumsy attempts to appeal to Black voters. She chuckled when asked about the former president promoting his custom metallic gold and red shoes at Sneaker Con, which some surrogates pointed out as an appeal to Black voters.

“Look how many people he gets to listen. When he does those things, he’s bringing in another group of people that may not have paid him attention. Now he has their attention,” said Childs. “You have to reach the student where they are. And he’s reaching people right where they are.”

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AP writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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Matt Brown is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.

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