Washington (CNN) – As the GOP aggressively tries to appeal to more black voters, the chairman of the Republican National Committee argued Tuesday that Republican candidates and elected officials "need to get out there" and "go to places they haven't been in far too long."
"Why? Because the first step is showing up," Reince Priebus said Tuesday at an awards ceremony for black Republicans at the famous Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
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Priebus acknowledged that Republicans had not been doing enough outreach in previous years.
"We have suffered as a national party for becoming a party that has shown up once every four years, about three months before an election," he said. "That is a losing strategy, and it has come to an end."
Following the GOP's 2012 presidential loss, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney only captured 6% of the African-American vote according to national exit polls, the RNC vowed to change its marketing strategy to minority voters.
As part of the RNC's post-election review, Priebus announced last March that the party committee would spend $10 million on new staff in mostly urban communities. RNC co-chair Sharon Day said Tuesday they now have staff in 11 states.
The chairman also highlighted last year's chartering of College Republicans at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Georgia, as a major milestone for the party and a big step towards building "a new generation of black Republicans."
While Priebus touted the RNC's efforts in the past year to bolster black voter outreach, he argued they still have a ways to go.
"Guys, I want to make you proud of this party," he told the mostly black audience.
Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 presidential contender, has made similar statements in the past about Republicans needing to go to more black communities. The Kentucky Republican spoke at Howard University and Simmons College last year, two historically black colleges in Washington and Louisville, respectively.
About 300 people attended the awards lunch Tuesday, including current and former lawmakers, as well as other political figures in the black Republican community.
Hilary Shelton, the Washington, D.C. bureau director of the NAACP, was also there, as well as a couple of Washington Redskins players and singer Toni Braxton's sister, Traci Braxton, according to the RNC.
The event Tuesday marked the RNC's second annual "Trailblazer" award ceremony to recognize black Republicans. This year's honorees were former Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan; former Assistant Secretary of Labor William Brooks; and Judge Sara Harper, the first black woman to serve on the U.S. Marine Corp Reserve Judiciary and one of the first two women elected to the Ohio District Court of Appeals.
As part of its recognition of Black History Month, the RNC also bought radio and print ads for the first time ever to recognize prominent black Republicans.
Democrats, however, argue the RNC's efforts are hollow and may simply amount to another broken promise. They point to repeated pledges by the RNC in the past decade to make gains with voters in urban areas.
Kiara Pesante, director of African-American media at the Democratic National Committee, said Republicans will have a tough time on the policy level, citing the recent debate over a provision in the Voting Rights Act and the GOP push against Obamacare as two big issues that Republicans will struggle with among black voters.
"No matter how many offices they open, or how many people they hire, or how many special events they host, the Republicans simply can't explain away that harsh reality," she said.
Actor Joseph Phillips, best known for his role on "The Cosby Show," co-hosted Tuesday's event at the Howard Theatre. He said the difference between previous outreach attempts and the RNC's current effort is a more organized plan to be on the ground year-round in certain communities.
"I think that's the key thing...This idea that some politician shows up at a convention and makes a speech–and somehow that qualifies as being engaged with the community and caring about the community? That's nonsense," he said, referring to previous GOP patterns. "What really counts are people in the community, actually working with real people who have real concerns and addressing those issues."
To combat criticism that the RNC's outreach efforts are disingenuous or simply political, Phillips said the GOP needs to continue pushing its core principles but also condemn hateful, racist language.
"None of this means anything unless this party distances itself from a small group of people who use this party and use conservative principles as cover for their idiotic ideas," he told CNN at the event, saying he wasn't talking about tea party conservatives, but "hateful, ugly people who claim and march under this (GOP) mantle."
"This party has got to distance themselves from them in order to really, really make headway with black voters," he argued. "That's the honest truth. Some people don't want to hear it, but that's the honest truth."