Republicans have invested millions in nonwhite voter outreach ahead of the midterms
In the heart of Atlanta's rapidly diversifying suburbs, Democrats have become a dominant force in local politics. But earlier this summer, Republicans gathered to stake their own claim in the community.
Dozens of people packed a strip mall in Gwinnett County to celebrate the grand opening of the Republican National Committee's Hispanic Community Center, including Rey Martinez, who was the first Latino mayor in the state of Georgia when he took office in nearby Loganville in 2018.
"I'm a candidate for Georgia House District 111," he told the crowd. "Now I'm back on the campaign trail again, and I know firsthand the benefit of grassroots efforts like what we are kicking off here with the grand opening of the RNC Hispanic Community Center."
Though the GOP is largely supported by white voters, the party has recently made inroads with voters of color. In the 2020 presidential race, former President Donald Trump made gains with Black and Latino voters in part through community outreach centers opened in key areas across the country.
Ahead of this year's midterm elections, Republicans have invested millions of dollars into expanding these centers into other minority communities in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas.
There are more than three dozen centers now open that reflect the diversity of the communities around them, from heavily Jewish Boca Raton, Fla., to a Native American community in North Carolina to a majority-Black neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia — a city where Trump improved on his margins from 2016 to 2020.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told the crowd at Georgia's newest outreach center that her party was committed to putting in the work and walking the walk when it comes to reaching voters of color.
"This is not us saying, 'We expect your vote, you owe us your vote,' " she said. "This is us saying, 'We want to earn your vote. We want to learn how we can better represent your community, how we can be here long-term.' "
The RNC Hispanic center is one of three in Georgia, joining an Asian Pacific American outreach location in another pocket of Gwinnett County and a Black American outreach center just south of Atlanta.
Paris Dennard, a former national spokesperson for the RNC, says these outreach spaces are not a new development, but rather continued investments that reflect the party's commitment in meeting voters where they are.
"What we understand is that all politics is local, but also politics is about relationships," Dennard said. "Politics is about establishing a connection with the voters. The more the voters are connected to you — be it a political party or a campaign or a candidate — the more likely they are to support you, to vote for you, and also to advocate for you among their friends and family members."
The RNC is building on what the Trump campaign started in 2020
In the 2020 presidential cycle, Trump launched his "Black Voices" coalition in Atlanta and delivered a major policy speech for Black voters in suburban Cobb County weeks before the election. The campaign opened numerous Black Voices for Trump and Latino Voices for Trump centers across the country.
And now, the RNC has been expanding the reach of those centers — and other minority outreach initiatives like helping prepare immigrants for their naturalization tests — to prepare for the midterms and beyond.
Dennard also said another important aspect of the community centers is that they are staffed by locals who know the community and not out-of-state operatives coming in at the last minute.
"It's because we understand that this is a two-way street, meaning the RNC is listening and learning from the community about what their specific needs are, what their concerns are and how we can better address them as our candidates," he said.
Someone who understands the importance of open communication is John King, Georgia's Republican insurance commissioner and the first Latino statewide officer in the state's history.
"It's incredibly important because we know not only are we creating a bridge for the Latino voice to be heard at the highest levels of our state, but also for established communities," he said.
King says conservative policies are resonating with more nonwhite voters, especially Latinos and especially with the current state of the national economy.
"We're having a permanent presence and having a permanent conversation in Spanish, in English, about the values that the Republican Party brings, which are very much in line to the values that generally you hear from Hispanics," he said. "They're interested in having conversations about opportunities to succeed, to improve the quality of their life for their families, and I think Republicans have a good case to make for creating opportunities for people to thrive."
King also says the community centers show meaningful community connections and don't come across as pandering for votes by offering free stuff in exchange for votes.
"There's a common saying in Spanish that when you take free stuff from the government, you're giving up something in return — either a little bit of your freedom, or a little bit of your soul," he said. "At the end of the day, that's not genuine, so people can see through that."
Some Democrats say they don't think voters will buy it
"They can continue to waste money in our communities trying to reach out to us, but we understand that they're not here to help us and they're just trying to use us in order to expand their power," said Nabilah Islam, a Georgia state Senate candidate of Bangladeshi descent who's running in a district that includes two of the RNC outreach centers. "And we're not going to let that happen."
That said, Democrats have also been accused of not investing consistently in voters of color — who the party often depends on, especially in the South.
"We must invest in our communities by doing ethnic media outreach, by reaching out to Black voters, Latino voters and AAPI voters and meeting them where they are," Islam said. "So you have to always compete in order to win, and we can't take anyone for granted."
Dennard, the former RNC spokesman, says the party is already seeing an uptick in voters of color supporting Republicans, including Georgia, where voter data showed the number of Black voters double in this spring's primary.
"It is by no surprise that when you saw the recent primary election, there was an uptick in voter participation across the board," he said. "But also, we saw an uptick in support for minorities crossing over to vote Republican. That is a good thing."
And while many of these outreach centers are located in areas that have seen Republican growth, they also overlap with places where Trump sought to invalidate votes following his 2020 defeat.
Georgia will see two Black Senate candidates square off for a pivotal seat that once again could decide control of the chamber: Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker. Dennard said Walker is a prime example of a candidate who is "changing the narrative of what it is to be conservative, what it looks like to be a Republican."
"And that's what you see across the country," he added. "Because our party is more diverse, our party is an open tent and our party is more inclusive."
Polling shows Walker's campaign is not resonating with Black voters in a significant way, and in this fall's elections, voters of color will still likely overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. But in a closely divided Congress, even a small shift in preference in battleground races could make the difference in who wins and who loses.
Republican leadership says this investment into voters of color is not a onetime deal. Once all the votes are counted, you can expect these RNC community centers to keep their lights on and doors open with an eye towards 2024 and beyond.
Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Georgia Public Broadcasting.