MILWAUKEE, Wis. – The Wisconsin Republican Party has opened its first-ever office in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, one of the clearest signs yet of the party's push to cut into Democrats' advantage among minority voters and the latest indication of how hard-fought every vote will be in the battleground state.
The office will serve as the base for the party's minority outreach coordinator and serve as a hub for Republican events, campaign organizing and efforts to connect with black and Hispanic people in Milwaukee, party leaders told The Associated Press.
“We want to be a part of the community,” Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt told the AP. “We want to make sure they know there is a choice."
Both major parties have stressed the importance of reaching every possible voter in the swing state. President Donald Trump carried the state by fewer than 23,000 votes in the 2016 election, fueled by high turnout among Republicans in rural areas and a drop in Democratic voters in Milwaukee, which is home to more than 69% of Wisconsin's black voters.
Republicans may not win in Milwaukee — Hillary Clinton got 77% of the city's vote in 2016 — but “we need to make the Democrats fight for those votes,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
In 2016, black turnout was down about 7 percentage points nationally compared with 2012, according to census estimates. In Wisconsin, the drop-off among black voters was steeper — 20%, based on a study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group.
Democrats have been making a concerted push to turn it around. That includes choosing Milwaukee to host the national convention in July, when the Democrats will nominate their candidate to take on Trump. But it also involves a lot of organizing on the ground to connect with voters who stayed home in 2016.
Angela Lang leads Black Leaders Organizing Communities, a group that formed after the 2016 election to better reach black voters in Milwaukee.
“We know that turnout was down. (Black) people felt that they weren’t engaged in a meaningful way,” Lang said. “So we're trying to think of lessons learned and making sure that we're engaging people. ... We need to start our conversations early and we can't wait for a candidate or party leader."
Lang said she's glad the GOP is “finally realizing the importance of the black vote," but she said the party will have a tough time convincing black voters to support it.
“It's interesting that now they want to target black voters when a lot of Republican policies directly are in conflict with our community and actually supporting our community," she said.
The political arm of Voces De La Frontera, which advocates for immigrant rights, is recruiting a network of 23,000 Latinos and multiracial youth to engage Hispanic voters leading up the presidential election — whether it’s friends, families, or acquaintances on social networks.
“Wisconsin was lost not because of a surge of voters for Trump, but it was lost because of lower turnout by blacks, Latinos and youth,” executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said.
Neuman-Ortiz said she doubts Republicans will succeed with minorities.
“The way they've up to now made inroads, or tried to make inroads, I think has really been a failed strategy because they offer nothing,” Neuman-Ortiz said. She said if Republicans want to gain minority votes, they should ”stop the aggressive attacks against immigrants through policies that separate families."
Elizabeth Brown and Tory Lowe, who both are black and are running in nonpartisan races for city aldermanic seats, said they were invited to the office before its opening to hear about the GOP's agenda for the black community. Lowe, who has been critical of Democrats in the past, later sounded skeptical, saying Republicans “don’t really have a plan for the black community.”
Hitt said Republican issues that would resonate with black voters include the strong economy, GOP support for the voucher school program, Trump's expansion of tax breaks designed to spur investment in low-income urban areas, and changes to the criminal justice system. That includes the First Step Act, a broad overhaul that included such elements as reducing prison sentences. The law was a rare bipartisan victory that had backing from black leaders and lawmakers who forged an alliance with Trump on that issue.
“We have a good story to tell if we reach out and tell people,” Hitt said.
Bauer reported from Madison.
This story was first published on Feb. 1, 2020. It was updated on Feb. 6, 2020, to make clear that two city aldermanic candidates photographed for the story, Elizabeth Brown and Tory Lowe, do not identify as Republicans and said they were visiting the GOP's office merely to hear details about the Republican agenda for Milwaukee.