Rodney Hall made history last month when he won the Republican primary for a Mississippi Capitol seat, setting him up to become the first Black Republican elected to the legislature since the Reconstruction era.
But that wasn’t his goal when he decided to run for the open seat in District 20, which runs along Mississippi’s border with Tennessee border. In his first bid for elected office, Hall, who won his primary by 10 percentage points, said he focused on his experience as a local prosecutor and on his conservative values.
“My district is over 60 percent White, and, you know, the only time that I talked about race was after I won, and people wanted to talk about it, because it’s the first time that has happened since Reconstruction,” Hall, 35, a prosecutor for Shelby County, Tenn., said in a recent interview. He has no opponent in the Nov. 7 general election and the deadline has passed to qualify for the fall ballot.
Hall is among several Black Republicans who have gained national attention in recent months, their visibility coming at a time when the party appears to be shifting more to the right, embracing culture-war issues around race, sexual identity and abortion rights. Some Republican leaders’ rhetoric and actions on such issues have sometimes put them at odds with most Black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democrats.
The Republican Party has had more success diversifying its candidate offerings, having upped its efforts to encourage or recruit Black people, as well as Hispanics and Asian Americans, to run for elected office at all levels of government.
Black candidates are competing for the Republican presidential nomination, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Texas congressman Will Hurd. In Kentucky, Attorney General Daniel Cameron is the party’s nominee for governor. In last year’s midterm elections, two new Black Republicans won House seats, bringing their number in Congress to five, the highest since the Reconstruction era.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who served nine years in the Texas state legislature as a Democrat, announced on Friday that he was switching to the Republican Party, saying “American cities need Republicans.”
Still, Black Republicans make up a small share of African Americans who hold elected office. During last year’s midterms, the National Republican Congressional Committee touted 81 Black candidates running for office, triple the 27 hopefuls in the 2020 election cycle. But only about a third of the 2022 Black candidates made it past the primaries, and just four, including two incumbents, won in the general election. By contrast 58 Black Democrats were are serving in the 118th Congress. Of the three Black members of the Senate, only one, Scott, is a Republican.
In 2021, Governing, a website that covers state and local government, conducted a census that found just under 10 percent of the 7,500 lawmakers serving in state legislatures were Black and only 13 were Republicans.
Black Republicans generally don’t emphasize their racial identity and they downplay the role of systemic racism in American institutions. Some have criticized Black voters for their loyalty to the Democratic Party, arguing that liberal policies haven’t improved conditions in Black communities. Most Black Republicans are elected in jurisdictions that have a majority of White residents, like the State House district that Hall will represent.
Hall, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), said when he was on the campaign trail “talking with leaders, elected leaders, and business leaders in the community, they never said ‘We think you’d be a great representative because you’re Black and you’d be the first one.’ They said we think you’d be a great representative based off your experience and your values.”
Leah Wright Rigueur is a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University, and author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican,” a historical look at Black conservatives in the party. She said that in recent years the Republican Party has “started investing in … Black candidates that they believe can either win elections, or can disrupt the kind of culture surrounding a political space or race.”
Felix Gines had hoped to join Hall in the Mississippi Capitol, but late last month he lost a Republican primary runoff. His victory would have been dramatic: Gines, a member of the Biloxi City Council, stunned his mostly Black constituents in December when he announced that he would switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
Gines said his conservative positions on certain issues, such as school choice, the economy, immigration and increased funding for police, are out of sync with the Democratic Party. But he also is concerned about the Republican Party’s perception among Black people.
“One of the reasons why I did make the change to is to start redefining … the party system of both Democrats and Republicans,” Gines said in an interview.
Gines says the Republican Party’s image has become closely tied with former president Donald Trump and some contentious cultural issues. For instance, Gines says he does not agree with the Republican stances on critical race theory and monitoring what instructors are teaching their students.
“I’m not into telling an educator how to educate people. It’s almost like telling a doctor, ‘Don’t be a doctor.’ I’m not into that at all,” Gines said.
In July, several Black Republicans, including Scott, Hurd and Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, publicly criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for defending a new state curriculum that called for teaching middle school students that enslaved people in America “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
But some, like Donalds, have argued that critical race theory, an academic field of study that views racism as systemic, is divisive and should not be taught in public schools and colleges, or used in diversity and equity training in government workplaces. Scott, in a campaign ad said that “the radical left is indoctrinating our children, teaching CRT instead of ABC.”
Rigueur said the ongoing challenge for Black Republican candidates is defending the negative image many Black people harbor about the Republican Party, including the former president’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump complained that the 2020 election had been stolen, falsely claiming massive fraud in cities such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta, which have large numbers of Black voters.
“Black Republican candidates for office are constantly fighting that overall image when they are engaging Black audiences. That’s the baggage that they’re coming into the conversation with,” she said.
But Janelle King, former deputy state director for the Georgia Republican Party, argued that Black Republicans have are not obligated to agree with every stance of the Republican Party.
“There’s no responsibility to defend anything or anybody in the Republican Party,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should feel that way.”
Hurd, one of the three Black candidates running in the Republican primary, said the “Democratic Party has taken for granted the Black vote for a really long time. But what the GOP has to do is, we have to put up candidates who are not racist, misogynist, homophobic, and that’s where our opportunity lies.”
The Republican Party continues to struggle to increase its support among Black voters. A July Pew survey found that 93 percent of Black voters backed Democratic candidates, in 2022, almost identical to their support in 2018 and 2020. Over the past five decades, Republicans have averaged less than 10 percent of the Black vote in presidential elections.
The Republican Party is hoping to take advantage of polls showing tepid support among Black Americans for Biden. A recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll found that 34 percent of Black Americans that they surveyed say Biden’s policies have helped Black people. In comparison, 14 percent say they have hurt Black people and 49 percent think they have made no difference, according to the poll.
Johnson, who announced his change of party in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, said that as mayor of Dallas he has said “no to those who wanted to defund the police” and has championed “lower taxes and a friendlier business climate.”
“Unfortunately, many of our cities are in disarray. Mayors and other local elected officials have failed to make public safety a priority or to exercise fiscal restraint. Most of these local leaders are proud Democrats who view cities as laboratories for liberalism rather than as havens for opportunity and free enterprise,” he wrote.
The Texas Democratic Party applauded his departure in a statement, citing his “long-standing affinity with Republican leaders and ideology.” Leaders of the party also criticized Johnson for waiting until after his reelection in May to announce the switch. “He wasn’t honest with his constituents, and knew he would lose to a Democrat if he flipped before the election.”
Recent political gains for Black Republicans have taken place in red states, where the Republican Party holds supermajorities in legislature and have pushed through policies that are unpopular with most voters, such as strict abortion bans. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Capitol expelled two Black members for disruptive protests when Republicans refused to take action on gun control legislation following a school shooting that left six dead.
In Georgia, State Rep. Mesha Mainor became the first Black Republican member of the general assembly in July when she stood next to a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Capitol ground and announced she was leaving the Democratic Party.
The family members and community supporters she invited to the news conference did not know what she would say until a few minutes before her news conference began. “I told them, you do not have to stand next to me. This is your decision, you do not have to,” said Mainor, a two-term representative of the 56th District.
For Mainor, who represents a heavily Democratic district in Atlanta with a nearly 50 percent Black population, leaving the Democratic Party felt right, especially after breaking with her colleagues on several issues, including supporting school choice, rejecting calls to defund the police and backing a bill that would create a new state board that would conduct oversight on elected district attorneys in the state.
The bill comes as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is bringing criminal charges against Trump and his allies for election interference in the 2020 presidential elections. Mainor says she thinks Willis’s office is “corrupt” and that Trump “isn’t getting a fair shake.”
Mainor says she is confident that her constituents will vote her into office again, because they agree with her on allowing parents to have a say in their children’s education and continuing to provide adequate funding to law enforcement.
“I am going to win the same way I’ve won all the other races with an overwhelming majority,” she said.
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.