It's a delicate dance for the GOP: try to appeal to minorities, whose support has trended toward Democrats, and highlight an increasingly diverse roster of up-and-coming politicians without violating core principles.
The party's platform says it opposes "preferences, quotas and set-asides as the best or sole methods through which fairness can be achieved, whether in government, education or corporate boardrooms." Notably, that could leave room for the consideration of race as one of many factors in selecting candidates or students, which is how affirmative action generally is practiced.
Even that looser standard is banned under measures backed by Republicans in seven states that have outlawed government affirmative action.
Last month, Republican-appointees on the U.S. Supreme Court, joined by one Democrat, upheld Michigan's voter-approved ban on considering race in any way in college admissions. It was the latest of a series of rulings by the court's conservative majority to limit affirmative action.
Mark Rosenbaum, who argued the case on behalf of minority groups that opposed the affirmative action ban, said the sort of routine outreach that political parties perform is prohibited to public universities under laws like Michigan's. "They can say, 'If you're a person of color, you would not feel out of place in our party,'" Rosenbaum said. "But if a university said that, there would be 1,000 lawsuits tomorrow."
The GOP is spending $60 million to expand its outreach among demographic groups with whom it historically has struggled, including Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. A new initiative aims to recruit 300 women and 200 minorities to run for state and local office. Republicans already bested their prior goal last year of finding 100 new Hispanic candidates.
The party also is trying to trumpet its efforts in minority areas it once shunned. In December, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was in Michigan for the opening of an office in inner-city Detroit and to announce the appointment of a state director of African-American outreach.
Party officials say they see no contradiction between such efforts to diversify and long-held skepticism of some types of affirmative action. "Republicans believe in equitable access to education, not special treatment solely based on race," said Tara Wall, an RNC spokeswoman. She said the party believes economic-based affirmative action may be a better way to promote diversity.
Jill Bader, a spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has set the goals for women and minority recruitment, said, "What we're trying to do isn't to fill a quota. It's that the people on the ground find people who are representative of the community."
Ward Connerly, a black Republican who helped write Michigan's affirmative action ban, argued there is a difference between a public university selecting students for limited slots partly due to race and the GOP's recruitment.
"That's just outreach," Connerly said. "Getting good candidates from different backgrounds is healthy."
Seven states have outlawed affirmative action since Connerly, with the support of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, launched the first ballot measure against the practice in California in 1996.
Numerous conservative legal thinkers, joined by some centrist and liberal ones, have argued that affirmative action is unconstitutional. They have the support of some of the Supreme Court's conservative wing, which has yet to outlaw it but has made rulings increasingly restricting the practice.
In 2003 the court narrowly allowed a University of Michigan policy to stand because the school considered race as one of several factors for admission. That triggered the ballot measure to ban affirmative action in the state, which passed by 16 points in 2006.
Richard Sander, a UCLA law professor and affirmative action critic, said the GOP's outreach is clearly affirmative action. But he said that may be appropriate the same way it was appropriate for President Richard Nixon to require federal contractors to use affirmative action in the late 1960s. The approach was necessary "just to convince people that policies are changing," Sander said.
John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University in California, acknowledged there is a risk that a party recruiting minority candidates will select them just because of their race. But he said he did not believe Republicans were regularly doing that. He cited the example of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose candidacy pushed then-Gov. Charlie Crist, an Anglo, out of the Republican Party in 2010. The GOP rallied behind Rubio not because he is Hispanic, Eastman said, but because he was the more conservative candidate.
"You have to broaden the net on applicants," Eastman said. "But I'm not going to put a thumb on the scale to let them in."
Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy at the NAACP, said that Republicans' opposition to affirmative action will make it harder for the party to be trusted in minority communities that already are suspicious of its motives.
"If not equal opportunity programs like affirmative action, what issue or plan do you have to fix this problem?" Shelton said of the GOP. "It doesn't help if you don't have a solution."
Republicans say that in their outreach to minority communities, affirmative action rarely comes up. They note that in California, Asian-American Democratic legislators recently opposed an attempt led by with Hispanic and African-American lawmakers to reverse that state's affirmative action ban.
Priebus was not asked about it during a recent appearance at a historically black college in Ohio, Wall said. Hector Barajas, a Republican political consultant who recruits Hispanic Republican candidates in California, said affirmative action is not what is hindering the GOP there.
"The only questions we get," Barajas said, "are on immigration."
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