By John Whitesides
CHARLOTTE N.C. (Reuters) - After losing the 2012 presidential election, Republicans vowed to expand their appeal beyond their shrinking base of white males. But as they concede, winning over black voters is likely to be a long and difficult task.
Since opening an African-American engagement office in North Carolina last fall, Republicans have courted black business leaders, visited barber shops and churches and gone door-to-door in black neighborhoods to sell the Republican message.
So far, their success has been limited. But they say it is just the first step in a sustained effort to change the party's image among black voters, the most loyal Democratic voting bloc.
"Is it an uphill battle? Absolutely. Are we making grand progress? Absolutely not. But I feel like I'm changing one or two minds here or there," said Felice Pete, a nurse anesthetist and a member of the state party's Black Advisory Board.
The swing state, one of 11 where the Republican National Committee has hired staff to reach black voters, hosts one of the country's most important Senate races in November's midterm elections.
But Democrats and civil rights leaders question how a Republican Party pulled to the right in recent years by the conservative Tea Party movement can make inroads among African-Americans.
When President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, Mitt Romney received 6 percent of the black vote. No Republican presidential contender has won more than 12 percent of black votes since President Gerald Ford's 15 percent in 1976.
"Certainly it's the place we have the most work to do, but I don't necessarily think it's the hardest sell," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said of reaching black voters.
"We are spending and employing more people and working harder on this effort than we ever have," he said. "Does that mean we're going to get 60 percent of the vote? Probably not. But I bet it has an impact and I bet we eventually get 15, 20, 25 percent."
Some black voters in North Carolina said they cannot take the effort seriously in a state where the Republican-led legislature has reduced unemployment benefits, curtailed early voting and same-day registration and declined to expand the federal Medicaid healthcare plan for the poor.
Civil rights groups launched weekly "Moral Monday" protests at the Raleigh statehouse against the Republican agenda, leading to more than 1,000 arrests over the course of the last year.
"Let me see, you want to take away my healthcare, unemployment compensation and voting rights, but you want me to think you are my friend? Old folks have an expression for that: 'Is you a fool?'" Curtis Bridges, a black electronics technician, said at a Raleigh voter registration rally sponsored by the Moral Monday protest leaders.
Earl Philip, North Carolina director of the Republican program, said he emphasizes the party's commitment to faith, family values and economic opportunity along with support for school choice and help for small businesses.
"There is nothing wrong with our message, we just have to do a better job of talking about it," he said.
The RNC so far has spent more than $10 million to hire staff for African-American voter engagement in North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Wisconsin and Colorado - all states with significant black populations or key midterm races, or both.
Party officials say the larger target is the 2016 presidential election and beyond, although Priebus said he expects some payoff in the midterms. In North Carolina, the race between incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis is tight and the black vote could be crucial.
But the rise of the Tea Party and its conservative emphasis on cutting government programs that are popular with black voters could pose a hurdle.
"Everything they hear is Tea Party this, Tea Party that. They think Republicans don't care," Franklin Freeman, a management consultant, said of black voters during a meeting of Charlotte-area black business leaders organized by Philip.
Republicans see an opportunity, though. Several attendees at a Charlotte barber shop meeting with young people and at an open house at the party's local headquarters said they were not registered Republicans but had an open mind.
"I want to learn more - I see a lot of good up-and-coming Republicans," said Brenda Robinson of Charlotte, the first black woman pilot in the U.S. Navy. "I just want smart people to win."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Douglas Royalty)