Last month’s gubernatorial election in Virginia was seen as a preview of how the 2022 midterm elections will pan out. It demonstrated that Republicans are in a positive position to retake the House and possibly even the Senate. Indeed, a recent report indicated the GOP might be set to win key governorships in other states, as well.
But there was another election that could be instructive for the GOP if the party takes notice. Jalen Johnson won his race to become City Commissioner for Ward Two in Albany, Georgia.
So why is this local race significant? Because Johnson ran as a conservative candidate in an area that is 70% black. His campaign and eventual victory could provide a viable template for other conservative candidates seeking to win elections in areas with high black and brown populations. I spoke with Johnson about his campaign and he explained how he managed to earn this decisive win.
Johnson is a 22-year-old black man who has been involved in politics for a significant amount of time. In his new role, he will have tremendous responsibilities. He explained that the city commissioner “oversees all the government operations” and will “have one vote out of seven to be able to authorize different things in the budget for the entire city.”
“The constituents will always call their Commissioner whenever they have any local direct issues that impact them. And the reason this position is so important is because I worked in Washington on the federal level. I know how much gridlock we have in Congress, where it’s all about what party you are. Nothing will happen between these and ours. If you’re a Republican, the Democrats don’t want to work with you and vice versa. On the local level, people feel [what] happens in their community immediately.”
It did not take long for Johnson to realize he was a conservative even though he knew most of the people around him were Democrats. He said:
“I grew up in a household where I heard people directly talk about being Democrat…but I didn’t really know what it meant. All I knew is that when I got kind of in late elementary, early in middle school, there was this groupthink that I found that was associated with it. Nobody even the teachers at school, nobody could break off from saying that ‘oh, yeah. I’m a Democrat.’ They can never give you any rationale.”
Later, he decided he would explore other political ideologies and brought up former Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Gov. Nathan Deal. “At that time, Nathan Deal was the man. He was a Republican, and he was the man for black voters,” he recalled. “He brought forth change with criminal justice reform. He did a lot with lowering taxes. He started the conversation around all of that. Right. So black voters loved him. And he was a Republican.”
He explained: “I was like, ‘Well my family at home is talking about Republicans are bad, and we’ve always voted Democrat. Well, look at this Republican doing something good.’”
From there, he began to dig deeper into conservative ideology and found that it resonated with him. “I literally just started to develop these ideas based on economic freedom, Liberty, the individual is the greatest fighting force. I do not believe in the government whatsoever. I mean, my entire platform was let the government stay out of your life as much as possible.”
I asked him how he was able to effectively sell his conservative message to a population that is typically leery of Republicans. He stated that he emphasized areas in which he knew black Americans would differ from the Democrats’ message. He pointed out the “reason Virginia turned red was that Terry McCauliffe said that parents should not have a say so in their kids’ education.”
“That is a huge no-no. Black voters do not like that, either. And that was a message I brought my constituents as well that I’m the freedom candidate, I’m the pro safety candidate, and I’m the pro-choice in education. And people like that, it resonated with them.”
Interestingly enough, Johnson also mentioned that one of the important factors in his race was his party affiliation:
“Now, did I run with an ‘R’ next to my name? No, I did not, because the city commission race is in Georgia, you don’t have to choose a party affiliation. So technically, I ran as a nonpartisan candidate, but it was well known that I’m a Republican because of my previous affiliation.”
Despite being a clearly conservative candidate, Johnson knew how to present his message to voters. He said:
I told them that I stood for freedom. I believe that we needed an increased presence of law enforcement in our community, not less. I believe in limited government, not more. I told them that I believe in the dignity of hard work and restoring the honor and integrity and work and not government handouts. And believe it or not, dozens and dozens on in amounts of black people I would talk to, especially older black men, it resonated with them.
Johnson acknowledged that “If they would have known that I was a Republican on paper…maybe that conversation would have went a little bit different,” but also noted that “These people agreed with me based on the ideals and the principles that I was discussing without the [Republican] label.”
He added: “So they agree with limited government. They agree with the dignity and the honor of hard work. They agree with strong public safety and protecting our youth. But they just don’t like when you put an “R” in front of it.”
I asked what advice Johnson would give to other conservative candidates like himself who wish to win over black voters. He said:
What I will say is just show up. Outwork your opponents day in and day out because I think the big thing I found as well what people love and what people appreciate is being heard and you taking your time.
He explained that when “you show up to their door and you actually talk to them and hear them out, those people will go to the ballot and be a solid majority voter for you.”
Johnson also had some criticism for some on the right who pay lip service to the idea of reaching minority voters without putting action behind it. He said:
“I think showing up is enough. I’m sick of all of these grift groups out there that act like they go out and register voters to show up. Republicans, Conservatives, whatever. Showing up is half the battle. Stacy (Abrams) did it. I mean, showing up is half the battle. If you show up and listen to these folks, you will have a lot more in common.”
Showing up was a central theme of our conversation and his campaign. Johnson knocked on doors and approached voters to ask for their support. But one of the most noteworthy steps he took to gain support was to focus on registering new voters instead of merely hoping to win over already-existing voters. He said:
“So there’s a lot of people out there my age that are young black men that I went to high school with that I knew probably didn’t have anybody registered in the vote. So I knew the importance of rallying those votes because the way that I think of it, the way I think everybody should think about it is that every election year, there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of new eligible.”
The new city commissioner also brought up the fact that most of the new voters he registered were younger citizens – a demographic that Republicans have struggled to reach. He said he had “engaging conversations” on a personal level with younger individuals and focused on educating them on how local government affects their lives. “I was like, ‘Hey, you do realize that if you decide to buy a house in the next couple of years and you settle down here in Albany, the thing that you do as far as your property taxes, as far as your local government, you do realize that affects you directly, right?’” he said.
He explained that most of these individuals did not understand how “these local ordinances literally directly affect them,” and when they realized it would only take a few minutes to register, “they were even more happy.”
Johnson’s campaign is a prime example of how right-leaning candidates can win in black areas. Many conservatives tend to believe that people in these areas are impossible to win over, but folks like Johnson illustrate the reality that it can happen if they are willing to put in the work.
With black voters growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, the GOP has an opportunity to begin re-engaging with black and brown communities. But this can only happen if they discard the defeatist mentality that has pervaded Republican politics for decades. The question is: Is the former Party of Lincoln willing to finally put in a sustained effort?