One Facebook post falsely claimed that the killing of George Floyd in police custody last month was a “staged event”, meant to rile up opposition to Donald Trump. Another showed a quote from Martin Luther King Jr next to a banana – an established racist trope.
And a third claimed that George Soros, the liberal billionaire, paid “white cops to murder black people” and “black people to riot because race wars keep the sheep in line”.
All of these posts were shared in recent days by Republican county leaders in Texas, some of whom are now facing calls to resign from top officials within their own party, including senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and governor Greg Abbott, who called the posts “disgusting”, the Texas Tribune reported.
The posts have unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the state of 29 million where Republicans are struggling to beat back Democratic advances in the rapidly diversifying electorate.
“I have said it before and I will say it again now: the GOP must not tolerate racism. Of any kind. At any time,” George P Bush, the state’s land commissioner and a rising star in the party, wrote on Twitter late on Thursday. “I urge them to do the honourable thing and step aside now.”
Keith Nielsen was the incoming chairman of the Harris County Republican Party in Houston who posted the quote from Martin Luther King Jr – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – next to a banana, a racist trope that links black people to monkeys.
Mr Nielsen apologised and told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday that he was resigning from his post, which he had been due to start in August. He said he had “zero malicious intent” and that he used the banana to indicate his feeling that the protests were “bananas”, or out of control.
Black leaders and the party’s centrists have argued that these racist controversies imperil the party’s ability to woo minority voters, who are key to maintaining conservatives’ longtime advantage in the state. Last year, the Tarrant County Republican Party in Fort Worth was embroiled in controversy when some of its members tried to oust a Muslim party official.
“The fact that in one day 4 Texas GOP chairs have come under condemnation for racist remarks – including MY county – should make it CLEAR AS DAY we have a problem in this party and y’all need to talk to more black people,” tweeted Charles Blain, the black founder and executive director of Urban Reform, a Houston nonprofit based on free-market solutions to urban issues.
“County chairs are the face of our local parties, and statements like these, though they don’t represent the mentality of Republicans as a whole, paint us in a bad light,” Mr Blain said in a follow-up interview. But he said he hoped the voters would take the party’s swift condemnation of the tropes into consideration going forward.
As the election approaches, the Democratic Party – spurred by the near-defeat of Mr Cruz by former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke in 2018, plus a gain of 14 state legislative seats – has poured millions of dollars into a state it sees as increasingly winnable.
Presumptive presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden told the Texas Democratic Party’s online convention on Saturday: “I think we have a real chance to turn the state blue.”
Since 2016, Texas has added 2 million registered voters, about half of them under age 25, and 36 per cent of them Hispanic, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.
Nationally, the Trump campaign had planned to use the record-low unemployment rate among African Americans to improve upon its 8 per cent share of the African American vote in 2016, said Matthew Wilson, an associate political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The coronavirus pandemic and racial-justice protests over Floyd’s death will make that much harder, as will “racially incendiary posts by local-level party officials,” he said.
“Any sort of outreach to the minority community is going to have to wait for this to calm down,” Mr Wilson said. “It’s such a charged environment and there’s a lot of heated rhetoric going on. Republican officials are just hoping to keep their heads down until the situation resolves.”
In a statement Saturday, the Republican Party of Texas tried to shift the focus to the media and Democrats.
“The Republican Party of Texas has made its position and values clear. Reporters dug through Republican county chairs’ social media with a fervour we have not seen from the press in decades,” the statement said. “Given what we all know about Joe ‘you ain’t black’ Biden’s and the Democrat Party’s horrible track record on race, we can only imagine what they will find when they do the same with the Texas Democrat Party.”
Some GOP leaders said they would be staying in their jobs.
That includes LaDonna Olivier, the GOP chairwoman in Reeves County, who had shared a post on Monday saying: “People are trying to turn George [Floyd] into a saint” but he was a “brutal criminal,” according to the Texas Tribune.
“I said he was no angel,” Ms Oliver said in an interview. “My concern is all the rioting and people not knowing what’s going on, making something so huge out of it. There are more important issues of people dying or being killed. Nobody cries about the abortions. The police were wrong, but from what I’ve seen on his medical records he was high on drugs.”
Nobody had asked her to resign, she said, and “they’re not going to”.
The Washington Post