The Louisiana Republican Party did something unprecedented in the early months of 2021, endorsing a female candidate and a black candidate (who is also the state GOP’s first immigrant candidate) for the US House of Representatives.
Julia Letlow, the widow of US Representative-elect Luke Letlow, swept to a landslide win in a race that was more challenging personally than electorally in light of what she endured in the 105 days since her husband won the runoff for the northeast-central Fifth Congressional District.
In addition to becoming the first Republican woman to represent Louisiana on Capitol Hill, Dr. Letlow (40) adds to an influential caucus of young GOP congresswomen that includes Kat Cammack of Florida (33) and Elise Stefanik (36).
On the southern end of the state, Jamaican-born and former Olympian Claston Bernard finished fourth in the overwhelmingly Democratic, black-majority Second Congressional District that meanders along the Mississippi River from the lower Ninth Ward to north Baton Rouge.
According to political consultant Greg Rigamer of BDPC, the district gave Donald Trump under 30% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Bernard’s uphill struggle was further complicated by the presence of three other Republicans on the ballot who attracted a combined 6% of the vote.
Of the four Republicans, only Bernard ran a full-fledged campaign, raising over $100,000, attracting the support of Louisiana congressmen Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins, and stumping across the district.
Bernard also got a hand from emerging national black Republican figures including Utah US Representative Burgess Owens, former Georgia legislator Vernon Jones, and Maryland congressional candidate Kim Klacik.
Claston Bernard’s candidacy was not a sacrificial lamb but hopefully the beginning of a sustained outreach to a segment of the electorate that doesn’t vote Republican.
Change takes time, effort, and a bunch of unsuccessful campaigns.
Just ask the father of the Louisiana Republican Party.
It took Dave Treen four losing campaigns to finally achieve a major win for the nascent Louisiana GOP in his fifth run for office.
Treen ran for the Second Congressional District in 1962 (33%), 1964 (45%), and 1968 48%- in a race that may very well have been stolen) and for governor in 1972 (43%) before winning the Third Congressional District (54%) later that year.
Treen’s goal was to establish a viable two-party system in Louisiana after a century of total Democratic nomination, where virtually all contests were settled in their party primary.
For Claston Bernard and the political beneficiaries of Treen and countless party activists, the challenge is even more daunting: creating in-roads in a demographic that has distrusted the GOP for generations.
Further, those few individuals who dare affiliate with the Republican Party have their identity as part of the community questioned.
If you don’t believe me ask Joe Biden, who declared on the campaign trail to African-American voters that “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Yet the arrogance of such a statement by a 77 year old white guy largely went uncriticized by black political leaders because they are heavily invested in a party that takes their constituents for granted.
It’s going to take far more than advertisements running on black radio stations 72 hours before election day to shift even a small share of the black vote towards the GOP.
Especially if the show hosts are mocking the commercials in between the ads.
And buying access on the ballots distributed in various inner city wards by the political machines doesn’t provide any real return in terms of votes. Even if the groups list the correct number by the Republican candidate’s name.
What’s necessary is direct engagement with black voters.
And that’s going to require running candidates who are willing to go door to door and not simply throw up yard signs on the neutral ground and pay the qualifying fee to have their name listed on the ballot, as the state GOP has done in the past as a half-hearted attempt under the guise of outreach.
Claston Bernard didn’t just confine himself to the few Republican-friendly precincts in the Second Congressional District, but went out into the neighborhoods that go Democrat 99-1.
For some people their encounter with Bernard may have been the first time a Republican candidate actually asked for their vote.
The GOP cannot hope to survive clinging to whatever “magical number” share of the white vote they need to win state wide, especially with the rising generation of millennials who are very hostile to the Republican Party.
Those aging Republican leaders lazily clinging to the increasingly obsolete “victory formula” will leave their successors a bare cupboard for an inheritance once their titles and offices are pried from their fingers.
Claston Bernard did not make a runoff for Congress but he initiated for the GOP a long overdue conversation with black voters.
It took Dave Treen a decade’s worth of losing campaigns to finally win a seat in Congress.
It will take even longer for a significant breakthrough by the GOP with black voters, but if the Republican Party is committed to following through for the long haul, that breakthrough might just happen at the critical moment.