With diverse slate of candidates, Republicans look to reshape party image

With a slew of promisingly positioned Republican candidates that also happen to be minorities, the party appears to be gradually catching up to American demographics. But will they be able to draw minority voters away from Democrats?


US Republicans are often portrayed as the party of old, white men. Weak support among African-American and Latino voters, policies seen as hostile toward immigration and affirmative action, and few elected officials of colour have hardly rectified that image.

But with a slew of promisingly positioned Republican candidates that also happen to be minorities, the party appears to be gradually catching up to American demographics. The question hot on the lips of US political analysts is what this could mean for the Republicans in the anxiously awaited November “midterm” vote, the 2012 presidential ballot, and the electoral landscape beyond.

A diverse Republican field

When Michael Steele became the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2009, left-wing bloggers accused Republicans of going tit-for-tat with Democrats by propelling a black man to the head of the party. Analysts pointed out that Steele was elected by party officials, not voters.

A year later, voters themselves have selected several Republican candidates of colour to represent the party in November elections of US senators, representatives, and state governors. Republican primaries in June saw successes for: South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, the 38-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants; Tim Scott, also of South Carolina, who could become the first African-American Republican in Congress in years; Susana Martinez of New Mexico, the first Latina chosen by either party to run for governor; Latino Brian Sandoval, Republican nominee for governor of Nevada; and Cuban-American Marco Rubio, Florida’s Republican nominee for the US Senate.

Other Republicans potentially poised for primary victory are Allen West of Florida, one of 32 African-American Republicans currently running for Congress; and Van Tran of California, who emigrated from Vietnam as a child and is now aiming for the House of Representatives.

New party or new strategy?

A New York Times article in May identified a surge of African-American Republican candidates as an unexpected “reverberation” of Barack Obama’s election. But the not

ion of large numbers of Republican minorities waiting to step into the spotlight seems to contradict known figures. Aside from the fact that there are few elected Republicans of colour, it is statistically a heavily white party: a 2009 Gallup survey had only 11% of Republicans as non-white, as opposed to 36% of Democrats. As Colorado Democratic strategist Laura Chapin told, “That these [non-white] Republican candidates are both recent and noticeable tells you a lot about their party”.

A more likely explanation than a suddenly diversifying party is that Republican leaders, aware of shifting American demographics and evolving attitudes toward race (among masses of white Obama voters were some registered Republicans), have sought out non-white Republican candidates in an effort to wrest minority voters from Democrats – not just in 2010, but in generations down the line.

“The country is getting more diverse, so the Republican Party will have to attract a greater share of minority support to be competitive in elections”, stated John Fortier, political scientist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. They are therefore recruiting and endorsing candidates of varying backgrounds, explained Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at left-leaning Brookings Institution. Indeed, prominent party figures like Sarah Palin, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Eric Cantor (himself the only Jewish Republican in Congress) have offered crucial public support to several of these rising Republican stars.

Old voting habits die hard

With Obama’s job approval ratings stagnating around the 50% mark, and Congressional Democrats taking heat from constituents for backing controversial left-wing reforms like the healthcare overhaul, Republicans are expected to make gains in November. But whether efforts to present a more diverse slate of candidates will attract minority voters remains to be seen.

Political scientist Fortier noted that the election of African-American Republicans to Congress “would send a good sign…that the party is open to a wide variety of people”, while voting in Latino Republicans would “give the party more credibility among Hispanics”. If any of these candidates won, they could in turn serve as liaisons to draw minority voters away from Obama in a 2012 presidential match-up.

Black and Latino voters, especially those who are devoutly religious, are already known to lean more toward traditional Republican stances on social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion.

Still, Fortier said the math on minority voting patterns is tough for Republicans, who “typically lose the black vote 90% to 10% in a presidential election, and by even more with Obama on the ticket”. Meanwhile, the fact that, as Fortier reminded, “the majority of the [Republican] party is deeply concerned about illegal immigration” is an obstacle with Latino voters, nearly 70% of whom backed Obama.

For Darrell West of the Brookings Institute, “having more diverse candidates is a big plus for upcoming elections”. But it is unlikely to durably alter the image of a party long seen, in West’s words, “as anti-minority and anti-diversity”.

To pick off significant numbers of minority voters from Democratic candidates, “Republicans must shift not only their candidate recruitment but their policies”, West warned. “The GOP needs policy reform that shows it gets the importance of greater inclusiveness”.

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