One House Republican's Plan to Bring Black Voters Back to the GOP

Scott Rigell's district is likely to become more Democratic and more African-American after court-ordered redistricting, upping the stakes in an outreach program he has been working on for years.

Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but he won't call it Obamacare. "I see it as pejorative," Rigell said. "It is the Affordable Care Act. Now, it's not affordable, and I think it's the 'Unaffordable Care Act.' But ... it's not personal to the president."

Rigell's ability to thread that needle—opposing President Obama's agenda while not disrespecting him personally—is central to the Republican's strategy for winning support from his district's large number of African-American voters.

Support from black voters is about to become all the more critical: A federal court ruled last month that the district adjacent to Rigell's was illegally gerrymandered, objecting that so many minorities had been packed into a single district. As part of the ruling, the court has ordered the state legislature to redraw the map by Sept. 1, a ruling that will stand barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When lawmakers do redraw Rigell's district, it will likely include a new influx of voters from Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott's—where African Americans currently make up 57 percent of the population and where President Obama won 79 percent of the vote in 2012. So in 2016, if Rigell wants to keep his seat, he will likely have to succeed where much of his party has failed: convincing large numbers of African Americans to vote GOP.

Fortunately for Rigell, he won't be attempting this for the first time. He first won the seat in 2010, and he has spent his four and a half years in Congress working to make inroads in the local African-American community, despite his party's heavy reliance on white support. In doing so, he has made allies across the aisle and enemies within his own party, and he has strong ideas of what his party needs to do to win over nonwhite voters.

African Americans make up 22 percent of Rigell's southeastern Virginia district. When Rigell first ran in 2010, campaign consultants told him he wouldn't win more than 5 percent of their vote.

It's impossible to pinpoint what exact percentage of black voters threw in with Rigell in 2010, but—based on the fact that he outperformed other Republicans in predominantly African-American precincts—campaign consultant Jason Miyares estimates the Republican won between 12 percent and 15 percent in 2014.

"I'm not saying we've got 51 percent of the black vote. We don't," Rigell said. "We have a lot more than any of these paid guys told me we can get, that's for sure."

In 2012, Rigell's only race run in the high-minority-turnout environment of a presidential election year, he beat Democratic challenger Paul Hirschbiel by 8 percentage points. Among voters from Rigell's district, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost to Obama by two points, and Republican Senate candidate George Allen lost by 4 points to Democrat Tim Kaine.

Rigell's support in some of the district's predominantly African-American areas was key to his ability to outperform other Republicans. In the portion of Norfolk that lies in his district, he lost to Hirschbiel by only 4 percentage points, while Allen lost by 18 points in that area and Romney lost by 15 points.

Meanwhile, Rigell has consistently won solid majorities in the more heavily white areas in his district. He won 56 percent of the vote in Virginia Beach in 2012, and 61 percent there in 2014.

It is likely that Rigell's district will soon include more voters from Norfolk, many of whom will probably be African American. One key to winning over those voters, he said, is toning down the Republican Party's antagonism toward Obama.

"We cannot discount the sensitivity of our hardworking friends in the African-American community who—I mean, it was a fundamentally big deal that an African American was now president. It was for all of us as Americans," Rigell said.

That means Rigell has two rules: Don't call it Obamacare, and refer to Obama as "the president" or "President Obama."

"African Americans will come up to me [and say], 'Thank you for referring to the president as the president,' " Rigell said. "It is not patronizing to show respect to the office of the president. It's not pandering."

Rigell has crossed the aisle on some bills that African Americans overwhelmingly support: He cosponsored a criminal-justice-reform bill last month along with Scott (the Virginia Democrat who represents the soon-to-be-redrawn district next to Rigell's) that would refocus mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes to the leaders of drug-trafficking groups, and encourage the use of probation for some offenders. He also joined Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings and Carolyn Maloney in backing an anti-gun-trafficking bill in 2013.

Rigell is willing to break with some Southern conservatives on the Confederate flag as well, saying the federal government should not "give even a tacit expression of approval of that flag," and that Mississippi's state government should remove the Confederate symbol from the upper left corner of its state flag. "I never flew the Confederate flag," Rigell said, adding that he grew up a Southerner who ate fried chicken and drank sweet tea. "When you see it attached to a pickup truck flying down road, I don't know what it meant to those guys, but I knew it had a connection to values that I didn't hold."

Rigell was not present for the voice vote on a measure banning the Confederate flag from federal cemeteries, but he said he would have voted in favor of the ban.

Still, Democrats are eager to tie Rigell to the GOP as a whole—especially on the issues of the Confederate flag, voting rights, and others that could resonate in the African-American community. Rigell joined his Republican colleagues last week in sending a measure that would ban the flag at the Capitol to a House committee rather than acting on it immediately, delaying a decision on the flag and holding up the appropriations process. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jermaine House cited that as one reason Rigell could be in trouble in 2016.

"Regardless of his outreach, black voters in Virginia deserve a representative who supports the issues that matter to them," House said in a statement. "Whether it's Rigell's support of the Republicans' maneuver to keep the hateful Confederate battle flag on display at the Capitol or his failure to lead on fixing the Voting Rights Act, his votes don't match his rhetoric."

The DCCC has hit Rigell on issues important to African Americans in the past, like last cycle, when it criticized him for voting against a minimum-wage hike despite having voiced support for it. Meanwhile, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Chris Pack says his group considers defending Rigell "one of our top priorities."

Illustrating the difficulty of Rigell's position, he has also received scrutiny from Republicans who think he's been too friendly with Obama. In 2013, when he rode on Air Force One and attended an event with Obama at a major shipyard in his district, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist called him a "cheap date," and a local tea-party group warned of a possible primary challenge.

In 2012, pastor Aaron Wheeler worked for Rigell's campaign as a "coalition outreach" adviser. Wheeler personifies the kind of voter Rigell hopes to win over: He's a registered Republican but supported Obama's reelection that year. Soon after Rigell's first election in 2010, he approached Wheeler, who still describes himself as an adviser to Rigell, about reaching out to the African-American community.

"I had to kind of straighten him out when he first walked into my office," Wheeler said. "Scott has a Southern-drawl language, and I think he had on cowboy boots or something. "¦ And I said, 'Brother, we've got to come off with that image a little bit.' "

More important than losing the cowboy boots, Wheeler said, Rigell has been a consistent presence in African-American churches, bringing his wife and children and attending volunteer events. Rigell has also helped Wheeler's causes as a local activist, including raising public awareness about preventing gang violence, Wheeler said.

"I'm trying to teach other Republicans that you don't march into churches just on Sunday morning. We don't want to see that," Wheeler said. "We want to see how you're going to help us with jobs. Scott put on major job fairs. He's helped me with gang violence by going on the street corners in Newport News, Virginia. You don't find many Republicans that do that."