RNC pays tribute to record-setting black Republicans

— 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.

Ben Carson: The U.S. is like ‘Nazi Germany’

Ben Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon and a popular figure among conservatives, compared the United States to the Third Reich in an interview.

Asked to elaborate on his previous comments about the U.S. living in “a Gestapo age,” the conservative firebrand argued the country has become “very much like Nazi Germany.”

“I know you’re not supposed to say Nazi Germany, but I don’t care about political correctness,” he said in an interview Monday with the conservative news outlet Breitbart.

His comments came at the New York Meeting, a gathering of conservative politicians, journalists and business leaders.

Carson, who came in third in the GOP presidential nomination straw poll at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, has been a fierce critic of the administration on the IRS controversy. The tax agency admitted last year to scrutinizing conservative political groups, though it maintains the error was not done out of political bias.

“You had the government using its tools to intimidate the population,” Carson said. “We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe.”

The neurosurgeon gained political fame after he publicly criticized some of President Barack Obama’s policies in front of the President at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast.

He quickly became a GOP star and was sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

But he lost some of that star power after making controversial comments last year. In one instance he compared the federal health care law to “slavery.”

And he sparked strong backlash when he equated homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality during a television interview about same-sex marriage. Facing loud opposition, he apologized and withdrew from speaking gigs at Johns Hopkins medical school and an event for the American Academy of Physicians Assistants.

As proven by last week’s straw poll results at CPAC, however, Carson still has support among the conservative wing of the base.

In the interview Monday, Carson said people are afraid to speak “because of the PC police,” and he blamed politicians as well as the news media.

“All of these things are combining to stifle people’s conversations,” he said.

He argued that if people “are afraid to talk,” they’ll never reach consensus and they’ll grow further apart. “That’s exactly what’s happening, creating a horrible schism that will destroy our nation if we don’t fix it.”

Asked if he was interested in a White House bid, Carson said “I wouldn’t mind going as a visitor.”

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Gov. Martin O’Malley on 2016, Christie

— After Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is one of the most talked-about potential candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

The two-term governor reiterated Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he’s considering the opportunity, but his attention is mostly on his current job.

“Sure, I’ve said I’m thinking about it, but right now I’m primarily focused on what I need to do for the good people of our state,” O’Malley told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley.

O’Malley’s term finishes up in January 2015, right around the time potential candidates are expected to start making major moves in the runup to the 2016 presidential race.

O’Malley has led initiatives in his state that largely mirror the national Democratic agenda: tougher gun control laws, same-sex marriage legalization, and the passage of the DREAM Act. He’s now looking to increase the minimum wage.

His state has a lower unemployment rate than the national average, and the public education system is ranked at the top in the country. Maryland also started its own health care exchange under Obamacare, though the state’s website got off to a rocky start with serious technical problems.

But O’Malley still lags behind in name identification. A CNN/ORC International Poll from November indicated only 2% of Democrats said they would choose him as the party’s nominee in 2016. Should Clinton decide not to run, that number grows slightly to 6%.

O’Malley has taken steps to become a more widely known name in national politics. He visited New Hampshire and South Carolina last year, two crucial states that vote early in the primary and caucus season during presidential election years.

He also led the Democratic Governors Association as chairman before taking his current post as finance chairman, a prime spot that will put him in a position to meet with key donors across the country.

“It’s an honor to even be mentioned in the company of those that might lead our country forward after President Obama. And right now I’m focused on the work at hand and the work of this General Assembly session in Maryland,” O’Malley said Sunday.

He was also asked Sunday about the controversy stinging another potential 2016 candidate, Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who apologized last week for his aides’ ordering lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

While O’Malley said the two “differ greatly on policy choices,” he decided not to take a swipe at Christie or his administration, saying he doesn’t think he can “shed more light on” the matter by commenting about the scandal.

“There’s certainly no issue that bothers our citizens quite as much as traffic congestion,” he said, but added “this is still early and the people of New Jersey and the authorities up there will get to the bottom of things.”

Cory Booker becomes Democratic nominee for N.J. Senate seat

— Newark Mayor Cory Booker will move on to New Jersey’s special Senate election as the Democratic nominee after winning his party’s primary on Tuesday, CNN projects.

He’ll battle the GOP winner, former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, for the October 16 contest, though polls show Booker is already considered the favorite to win the seat and become the first African American elected to the Senate since Barack Obama.

(Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is currently the only African American in the Senate, but he was appointed–not elected–to his seat.)

“Thank you. It is such an honor to be your nominee, to be your Democratic nominee for the United States Senate,” he told supporters at his victory party late Tuesday night in Newark.

Speaking with a slightly hoarse voice, Booker pledged to be “unwavering” in finding common ground in Washington if he becomes the state’s next senator.

“The direction I will be most concerned with will not be right or left, it will be with going forward.”

A rising star in his party, Booker handily beat out a crowded field of Democratic candidates for the nomination Tuesday–a group that included Rep. Frank Pallone, Rep. Rush Holt and General Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.

In the Republican primary, Lonegan toppled physician Alieta Eck. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Monday at a press conference he fully anticipates endorsing the Republican nominee, no matter who wins Tuesday’s contest.

While Lonegan now moves on as the GOP’s pick for the seat, he trails Booker 29%-54% in a hypothetical matchup among registered voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.

With more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter and Oprah Winfrey as one of his biggest supporters, Booker’s appeal and frequent television appearances have reached beyond the borders of the Garden State.

In addition to voting, Booker on Tuesday greeted voters and retweeted shout-outs from celebrities on Twitter, including comedian Sarah Silverman, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, writer and actress Lena Dunham, and Ivanka Trump, daughter of real estate titan Donald Trump.

Actress Eva Longoria appeared at an event for Booker on the eve of primary day, encouraging voters to turn out for the two-term mayor.

Elected in 2006, after losing his first mayoral attempt in 2002, the Stanford grad and former football player previously served on Newark city council. Booker’s resume also includes a law degree from Yale and a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

His critics have accused the mayor of being more interested in his celebrity status than waging a serious campaign. But Booker’s high profile has helped in part with his massive fundraising haul. As of July 24, the candidate has raised $8.6 million and has $4 million in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Rivals also bring up Booker’s involvement in his internet start-up, Waywire. As the chairman with the largest share, Booker began promoting the struggling company last year. Critics argue the business was a distraction to his job as mayor, and they faulted him for initially opening up offices in New York City, rather than in his own town of Newark. Those offices closed down this year, according to The New York Times.

He has said publicly that if elected to the Senate, he would step down from the board of Waywire and put his shares in a blind trust. He would prohibit Waywire from lobbying his office and prohibit his staff from doing any work on the company’s behalf.

“Everybody knows that Mayor Booker is excited about technology and what it can do to empower real people,” campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis said in a statement. “He invested in an idea and helped get a business off the ground, and a lot of people found that idea compelling.”

Christie called the special election after Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg passed away in early June. While a Republican interim senator–appointed by Christie–currently holds the seat, it has been expected a Democrat would win the special election in the largely blue state.

At the top of his victory speech Tuesday night, Booker first acknowledged Lautenberg’s legacy. “He has made us safer and healthier. We are a better state and we are a better America because of Senator Frank Lautenberg.”

The winner of the October 16 race will finish out Lautenberg’s term through 2014, and the winner can run for a full term next year.

The nonpartisan political handicappers Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook both rate next year’s Senate race in New Jersey as solid or safe for Democrats.

Christie was criticized earlier this summer when he set the oddly-timed date for the special election. Rather than scheduling the special election to fall in line with the already-set gubernatorial election in November, Christie set the special for October.

Critics pointed to the extra costs to taxpayers for a separate election, but the governor stood by his decision, saying New Jersey voters deserved to have an elected official in the Senate as soon as possible.

CNN’s Jim Acosta, Kevin Liptak and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

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