WASHINGTON (CNN) — As Republicans attempt to build more inroads with black voters, the Republican National Committee sought to highlight its progress on Wednesday, recognizing three newly elected black Republicans to Congress.
The committee held its third annual awards lunch at the Howard Theatre, a historic black landmark in Washington where the RNC and more than 400 attendees also paid tribute to the late Republican Sen. Edward Brooke, the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, who died last month at the age of 95.
The event recognized Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction (in 2014 he was elected to the same seat he was appointed to in December 2012); Rep. Will Hurd, the first black Republican elected to Congress from Texas; and Rep. Mia Love of Utah, the first black Republican woman to serve in Congress.
Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and a major GOP donor, helped introduce the three lawmakers.
“It’s amazing to me that we’re dealing with ‘firsts’ in this century,” Johnson told CNN in an interview after the event. “There should be ‘seconds, thirds and fourths,’ and really the Republican Party is open to all.”
While Republicans had a big year in 2014, Scott and Love still won largely with the support of white voters, while Hurd won with the support of white and Hispanic voters. In South Carolina, for example, Scott won 10% of the black vote, only slightly more than the other South Carolina senator, Lindsey Graham, who’s white and brought in 6% of the black vote.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said on stage Wednesday. “I know we’re not going to carpet the world here in one or two years or one election cycle, but it’s an improvement, and we always have to be improving as a party.”
Black voter turnout in the midterm election this past November did reach into the double-digits in some states, like Florida (12%), Wisconsin (10%) and in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich won re-election with 26% of the black vote.
For her part, Love told a story about a student who asked Love how she’s able to be a black Republican woman living in a red state like Utah in “today’s America.”
“I am all of those things because I refuse to fit this mold that society tells me I need to fit into,” she replied.
Love also urged Republicans to focus on a message of being independent from government.
“People who are independent are the ones that make a difference,” she said. “We need to remove ourselves from a different kind of slavery, and what I’m talking about is the slavery that comes from being dependent on people in power.”
Narrowing the GOP’s gap with minority voters became a priority following the 2012 presidential loss, when Mitt Romney won only 6% of the African-American vote and 27% of the Latino vote. Romney’s privately recorded comments, in which he argued that 47% of Americans were dependent on government, became a damaging moment for the then-nominee, and it’s a message that Republicans are still trying to run from.
“The reason Republicans lost can be summed up in two words: 47%,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who’s seriously considering a presidential bid, said recently at an event sponsored by the Koch Brothers.
That lesson helped spur renewed attention to anti-poverty efforts, and some potential presidential contenders, like Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Chris Christie, have tried to appeal to minority voters by focusing on criminal justice reform.
Wednesday’s event largely stayed away from policy and focused more on efforts Republicans have made to build relationships with black voters through community outreach and black media. The party has spent millions on hiring staff who are tasked with improving the Republican brand in places with nontraditional GOP voters.
“As we enter the presidential election year, we’ll share our ideas with Americans of all backgrounds,” Priebus said, adding that he’s committed to building a more “inclusive” Republican Party.
“This is about being present all the time. America is strongest when both parties fight to earn every vote. No voter should be taken for granted, and no voter should be overlooked,” he said.
The event also didn’t touch on racial tensions that erupted last year with the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, or the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in a chokehold in New York City. Both cases, in which the officers were not indicted, became a political flashpoint and spurred mass protests across the country.
Michael Tyler, director of African-American media at the Democratic National Committee, argued the RNC lunch was simply a “perfunctory gesture” and called on Republicans to “actually fight for the issues that most affect black families across the country,” naming education, health care and minimum wage as examples.
“While minority ‘outreach’ is sorely lacking in today’s GOP, what is even more lacking is a record of real results,” Tyler said.
CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.