By now, it's conventional wisdom that the Republican Party has an urban problem. In the last election cycle, Barack Obama won 85 percent of Philadelphia, 88 percent of Baltimore City, and 74 percent of Cook County in metropolitan Chicago. To the extent that national Republican candidates have mentioned cities at all, it's often awkwardly been to run against them. Otherwise, the party has been so absent from the inner city that Rand Paul made news late last year simply by turning up in Detroit.
At the local level, San Diego just surprisingly elected a Republican mayor. But Kevin Faulconer is now one of just three Republicans leading the country's 25 largest cities. Take those same 25 cities and look at their city councils. In Texas, local council elections are non-partisan, but the rest of the lot?
"Republicans have less than 20 percent of representatives on city councils," says Jill Homan, a Republican National Committeewoman who represents the District of Columbia. "As much as it’s an executive branch issue in cities, it’s also in the legislative body of cities."
"What’s happened over time is we’re now a party without infrastructure."
Homan demurs to others to assess how the GOP got here (something we've been happy to help with at Cities). But, like a growing number of Republicans, she figures the party can't succeed in the long run by continuing to cede the parts of the country that now have some of the fastest population growth. To that end, this week she launched a nationwide initiative called CityGOP (we imagine the URL was not that hard to get).
The platform is meant to help Republicans who "feel lonely in cities," in Homan's words, to find each other and find local candidates. The site already has an extensive list of the candidates running in local elections later this year in 25 cities, with hyperlinks straight to donation pages. Homan also wants CityGOP to be a kind of policy clearinghouse for those candidates themselves. "If I’m thinking about, 'Gosh, I need some more meat on my homelessness position,'" she says, "'I’d love to have some papers or some points I could use.'"
From these local elections, she's imagining some up-ballot benefit. If the party can make any dent in urban areas, she says, that relieves pressure on turnout in non-urban parts of the state. Maybe some investment in Cleveland will marginally improve the party's prospects there, while putting other Ohio (or national) races in play, too.
Washington – the city, not the capital – seems like a particularly unlikely place from which to launch a new national coalition of urban Republicans. Only 6 percent of voters in the District are registered with the party. Obama most recently won the city with more than 91 percent of the vote. Homan, who grew up in Howard County outside of Maryland, obviously knows this reality well.
"I like to tell people it wasn’t hard enough being a Republican in Maryland," she jokes, "so I decided to move to D.C."
Of course, expressing an interest in urban areas – or, rather, a refusal to concede them – is the obvious first move for the party. But the bigger question is what it will take next. How much would it help if Republicans simply stopped deriding cities as outside of "real America"? Can people like Homan make inroads in Washington if the party has other standard-bearers touring rural Virginia – and prominently quoted in the pages of the Washington Post – invoking inner-city welfare queens to boost turnout?
Beyond messaging, there are also substantive policy reasons why urban voters often feel their needs are better served by Democrats. On Capitol Hill, funding for public transportation has increasingly become a partisan issue. Cities that desperately need the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act have been spurned by Republican governors. The District of Columbia itself has long been burned by Republicans in Congress who oppose statehood while trying to force social policy on the city that voters there would never chose for themselves.
So do Homan's candidates need new positions, or do they simply need to renew their positions on topics they've seldom talked about? As an answer, Homan points to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
"Winning in New Jersey as a Republican is different than winning, say, in Mississippi," she says. "So what I suggest is that we need as a party to consider branding ourselves as an 'urban Republican,' a 'city Republican,' to really try to help people understand what it means to be a Republican in a city."
And exactly what does that mean?
"What I think it means is that we’re focusing on issues like jobs, economic development, education reform, and housing," she says, by which she also means not focusing on social policy. She points to longtime Republican Congressman Jack Kemp from New York State, who went on to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the first President Bush. "I know staunch Democrats who have a favorable impression of Jack Kemp."