Pa. GOP sets sights on black, Hispanic voters |
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Pa. GOP sets sights on black, Hispanic voters

HARRISBURG — While Pennsylvania Republicans search for a modified message to win the 2014 governor’s race and presidential race two years later, GOP voter Dolly Ripper, 76, has some advice for her party’s leaders: Stand firm.

“Don’t change your principles,” said Ripper, a retiree and widow from Bethel Park.

She wants Republicans to continue, for example, to fight the Affordable Care Act and, in Harrisburg, to continue pushing to sell the state-controlled liquor system.

“Who the hell are they to tell me where I can buy a drink?” Ripper, who drinks wine when she imbibes, said of privatization opponents.

The Republican National Committee, while in Boston Aug. 14-16, explored a range of suggestions to strengthen the party such as beefing up social media usage, reaching out to Latino and black voters and limiting the number of presidential debates.

Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason of Johnstown, who attended the meeting, said he returned buoyed with optimism about applying the concepts when Gov. Tom Corbett faces what’s expected to be a difficult re-election campaign in 2014 and a GOP nominee takes on the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

“It looks like it’ll be Hillary Clinton, hands down,” for Democrats, Gleason said. He said he thinks party leaders need to cultivate a “mainstream” image.

Republicans are “clearly diagnosing a real problem for the party, reaching beyond its core, which has not been there in presidential elections,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “What is their message? What is their brand?”

It won’t be easy making inroads with Hispanic voters, Borick said.

Despite a rapidly growing Latino population in Pennsylvania, they make up about 7 percent of the population. Blacks make up about 12 percent.

“Pennsylvania is a bit whiter than most states,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.

More than rhetoric?

Just making the effort to reach out to minorities might impress suburban voters “who see the party as increasingly intolerant,” said Leckrone.

But, said Abe Amoros, Pennsylvania legislative director of the Laborers’ union: “Unless they fully address economic issues and issues of equality, and unless they have a presence in Latino and African-American communities, it’s nothing more than rhetoric.”

Amoros, a past spokesman for the state Democratic Party whose family is from Puerto Rico, said the Republican Party “has done a terrible job of presenting a path to citizenship” for immigrants.

Though a majority of blacks historically have voted in lockstep with Democratic candidates, Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey said the GOP should pitch economic arguments: “Are you satisfied with your life? Do you feel your vote for the Democrats has helped you? I think there are a lot who will say ‘no.’ ”

Trying to court black voters is complicated by controversy over the state’s voter ID law, approved by a Republican-controlled legislature. Commonwealth Court is considering a suit that challenges its constitutionality. The NAACP leads in opposing the law.

Supporters say it is intended to protect the integrity of elections. The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union say it will disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters who tend to be elderly, disabled, racial minorities and poor.

“The voter law is a serious deterrent to any outreach Republicans are going to make,” said political analyst G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

“There’s a difference between rhetoric and action,” said longtime state Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, who is black.

Evans contends cuts to state funding for public schools — made by the GOP-majority legislature and signed by Corbett — caused a funding crisis in Philadelphia and pose problems for any Republican effort to get votes. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities comprise a majority in Philadelphia.

The Corbett administration denied Evans’ assertion.

Keep core values

The party might make headway with Latinos by highlighting Republican support for “family values,” Roddey said.

Westmoreland County GOP Chairwoman Jill Cooper said there needs to be a way for “everyone to have some form of citizenship. The thought of sending them all back isn’t going to happen. I’d like to see our party be part of the solution.”

Lowman Henry, chairman and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research and a former Republican Westmoreland County jury commissioner and county GOP chairman, said the party needs a message “that appeals to broad segments of the population without coming off as a watered-down version of the Democrats.”

Republicans “need to stop scaring people,” Henry said. “Obviously we need to secure our borders, but it is hard to make inroads with Hispanics when they are talking about sending grandma back to Mexico.”

Leckrone of Widener University said that instead of suggesting ways to cut the size of government, Republicans instead should talk about “reworking government and making it work better for people.”

Corbett’s campaign chairman, Mike Barley, lauded the governor’s tenure as one marked by “fiscal responsibility, limited government, a comprehensive energy strategy and lower taxes.”

“They are the principles that have guided Gov. Corbett’s tenure in office, resulting in an economic resurgence in Pennsylvania and 130,000 private-sector jobs,” he said.

“I think we have a shot at electing Corbett,” said Fred Anton, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and a prominent GOP leader.

Beth Melena, a Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokeswoman, doesn’t see it that way.

“Republicans can try to rebrand all they want, but the truth is it’s their out-of-touch policies that are the problem,” Melena said.

She said Corbett, whom many analysts view as the most vulnerable incumbent governor, “is the face of the failed Republican rebrand.”

Roddey said the message for the presidential election is unclear. Republicans generally “need to be talking about core values, with less emphasis on social issues,” he said. That means emphasizing “jobs, the economy, smaller government and lower taxes.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].

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