ATLANTA – When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights act last week, it handed Republicans tough questions with no easy answers over how, and where, to attract voters even GOP leaders say the party needs to stay nationally competitive.
The decision caught Republicans between newfound state autonomy that conservatives covet and the law's popularity among minority, young and poor voters who tend to align with Democrats. It's those voters that Republicans are eyeing to expand and invigorate the GOP's core of older, white Americans.
National GOP Chairman Reince Priebus began that effort well before the court's decision by promising, among other initiatives, to hire non-white party activists to engage directly with black and Latino voters. Yet state and national Republicans reacted to the Voting Rights Act decision with a flurry of activity and comments that may not fit neatly into the national party's vision.
Congressional leaders must decide whether to try to rewrite the provision the court struck, but it's not clear how such an effort would fare in the Democratic-led Senate and the GOP-controlled House. And at the state level, elected Republicans are enacting tighter voting restrictions that Democrats blast as harmful to their traditional base of supporters and groups the Republicans say they want to attract.
States like North Carolina and Virginia provide apt examples of the potential fallout. An influx of non-whites have turned those Republican strongholds into battlegrounds in the last two presidential elections, and minority voters helped President Barack Obama win both states in 2008 and Virginia again in 2012. Nationally, Republican Mitt Romney lost among African-Americans by about 85 percentage points and Latinos by about 44 percentage points, margins that virtually ensure a Democratic victory.
Yet presidential math doesn't necessarily motivate Republicans who control statehouses and congressional districts in states most affected by the Voting Rights Act. Core GOP supporters in the region react favorably to voter identification laws and broad-based critiques of federal authority.
Against that backdrop, Southern Republicans celebrated Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion that effectively frees all or parts of 15 states with a history of racial discrimination from having to get advanced federal approval for any election procedure.
The so-called "preclearance" provision anchored the law that Congress renewed four times since its 1965 passage as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement for black Americans. The law contains an "opt-out" provision that allowed a jurisdiction to ask a federal court for release from preclearance if it has established a record of non-discrimination. Roberts said that process – never used successfully by an entire state – wasn't enough.
"The court recognized that states can fairly design our own [district] maps and run our own elections without the federal government," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement.
Citizens can still sue to overturn state laws, but they'll likely have to prove discrimination after the fact, rather than local authorities having to convince federal officials in advance that a law wouldn't discriminate.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican running for governor, said: "I do not believe we have the institutional bigotry like we had before."
GOP officials in Texas and Mississippi promised within hours of the decision to enforce new laws requiring voters to show identification at polls. The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights lawyers had frozen the Mississippi law while they considered effects on minority voters, while a panel of federal judges in Washington blocked the Texas law because of its potential to harm low-income and minority voters. North Carolina Republicans said they'd enact their own voter identification law. Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed new congressional district maps – tilted to Republican advantage – that federal authorities would have had to review.
But in Washington, Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia embraced the nuances of Roberts' ruling. The court didn't actually strike down preclearance, instead tossing rules that determined which jurisdictions got oversight. Congress is free to rewrite those parameters and revive advance review, Roberts wrote.
"I'm hopeful Congress will put politics aside," Cantor said, "and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected."
The white Republican recalled his recent trip to Alabama with black Democratic Rep. John Lewis on the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, was beaten repeatedly as a young civil rights advocate during the 1960s. The commemoration, Cantor said, was "a profound experience."
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who helped lead the law's latest reauthorization when the GOP ran Congress in 2006, said the court "disappointed" him. Lingering discrimination, he said, compels Congress to update the act, "especially for minorities."
"There's no easy answer" for the GOP, said Henry Barbour, a high-profile member of the Republican National Committee. The Mississippi native conceded his personal views demonstrate the complications.
Barbour helped write the national party's post-election analysis calling for better outreach to minorities and urged fellow Republicans that "our tone is important, on this and any other issue." But he's clear in his support for the decision and what it means in Mississippi.
Blatantly racist laws like poll taxes and literacy tests once made preclearance necessary, Barbour said. "But when you have to go hat-in-hand to Washington every time you want to move a polling place," then it's evolved into "federal harassment that's gone on way too long," he added.
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said Congress is capable of writing a new national formula based on the latest voter registration and turnout data "if everyone will sit back and take a deep breath."
Barbour disputed that forecast, but not because of opposition from Southerners. Rather, he said, "People in these other states don't want this scrutiny coming to them."
That frustration reflects part of the 2006 renewal debate in Congress. Despite fewer than three dozen dissenting votes, some Southern members said the extra scrutiny should apply nationwide or not at all.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who supported ending preclearance, said Republicans should emphasize parts of the act still in use. Besides a general discrimination ban, the feds can invoke preclearance for jurisdictions with new patterns of mistreating minorities. That "opt-in" rule has affected Arkansas, New Mexico and some cities and counties.
Others in the GOP say election results form a defense. Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina party chairman, noted that Gov. Nikki Haley, of Indian descent, appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott as the modern South's first black U.S. senator. He'll seek a full term next year.
"We're walking the walk," Dawson said.
Of course, Southern states also produced the widest margins among white voters in favor of Mitt Romney and John McCain in their losses to Obama.
Chris LaCivita, a Republican consultant in Virginia, offered one more potential comfort for Republicans: The relationship between Democrats and whites. Republicans need more minority votes in presidential years, but Democrats need more white Southerners if they want to regain control of Congress or many statehouses.
"Democrats might want to think long and hard about making a racially based argument," LaCivita said, "considering voters they need don't like having to pay for the sins of their fathers."
Follow Barrow on Twitter @BillBarrowAP.