A New Face for the GOP?

While much attention was rightly focused on the Romney-Ryan ticket at the 2012 Republican National Convention, significant but perhaps overlooked changes are occurring at the grassroots level: for the first time since the Depression ended GOP national dominance in 1932, Republicans are recruiting and running large numbers of black and Hispanic candidates for state and federal office.

In 2012, more than 60 black and Hispanic Republicans are running for Congress, a new record.  These candidates are not “sacrificial lambs” set up to lose in heavily Democratic inner-city districts. A fair amount of them are running in swing or Republican areas and will likely win. When the dust settles after November 6, it is likely that there will be the highest number of black Republicans (at least three) in the House of Representatives since the Civil War/Reconstruction Era and the highest number of Hispanic Republicans in Congress ever (at least five).

For years, since the 1960s, Democrats have courted the minority vote. Now, the Republican Party is getting more in tune with the new demographic realities of the 21st century. The modern Republican Party has made solid progress in reaching out to moderate-to-conservative minority candidates who share their values on a truly colorblind basis. Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Nikki Haley (whose family is from India), Governor Susana Martinez (who has family roots in Mexico), former Secretary of State Condi Rice, and Utah Congressional candidate Mia Love (who also stars in the “And I’m a Mormon” video series) all gave well-received addresses in Tampa.

In 1980, when Reagan defeated Carter handily, the nation was 12% black, 7% Hispanic, 2% Asian/Pacific Islanders, 1% “Other/Mixed Race,” and 77% white, according to the 1980 Census. The 1980 CBS News exit poll showed that the actual voters were even more white and more middle class: 10% black, 2% Hispanic, and 88% white. But both the 2010 Census and 2008 exit poll showed a very different electoral universe. In 2010, the population was 13% black, 16% Hispanic, 5% Asian/Pacific Islanders, 3% “Other/Mixed Race” — and down to just 63% white.

Due to the record minority turnout inspired by President Obama, the 2008 electorate looked a lot more like the people: 13% black, 9% Hispanic, 2% Asian/Pacific Islanders, 3% “Other/Mixed Race” — and down to just 73% white.

This means that the minority share of the electorate has more than doubled in the last generation. Since every Republican presidential nominee after 1945 except Barry Goldwater in 1964 has carried the white vote, the 15-point decline in the white share of the electorate represents a net loss of 10 million votes (!) for the GOP ticket. If Mitt Romney can’t do better with minorities and the black turnout is high again, he’ll need over 60% of the white vote to get a majority, something only Presidents Nixon and Reagan have done since 1945 in their 49-state landslides.

So Rich Bond, a former head of the Republican National Committee, was surely right when he told the Washington Post in 2001: “We’ve taken white guys about as far as that group can go. We are in need of diversity, women, Latino, African-American, Asian.”

It looks like the GOP is now starting to get the diversity of candidates they’ll need. While white conservatives certainly fueled their big 2010 victory, the Republicans also broadened their ethnic appeal by electing two black representatives in the South (Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott in South Carolina) for the first time since the Civil War era, and a black woman as lieutenant governor of Florida. They elected an Hispanic woman governor (Susan Martinez of New Mexico), an Asian woman governor (Nikki Haley of South Carolina), a Mexican-American governor (Brian Sandoval of Nevada), and three Mexican-American House members.  The Republicans even elected a Puerto Rican Mormon in Idaho, Congressman Raul Labrador.

This year, all of those congressional Republican minority incumbents are favored to win. And their numbers will grow: Ted Cruz is the overwhelming favorite to win a U.S. Senate seat in heavily Republican Texas, while in Utah, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love (a black immigrant from Haiti and Mormon convert) has an even chance at becoming the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress in a state Romney will win easily.

This is good news for all Americans who want to see politics move beyond racial considerations.  As Richard Ivory, a black Republican consultant, said, “Color is becoming less of an issue. … There was a time when the white electorate saw race first and made judgments based on this alone. While black Republicans and Obama disagree ideologically, both are candidates whose message surpassed pigment.”

While Romney isn’t expected to win many black votes against the first African-American president, a newer Republican Party could have a decent chance to win over some of the church-going black middle class in 2016 on social issues like gay marriage.

Maybe it’s the new Census figures, maybe it’s the influence of Marco Rubio, but the GOP is also now aggressively courting the Hispanic vote.  Was this a Republican National Convention or a meeting of the Hispanic Caucus?  More Spanish than ever was spoken from the podium by (among others) Texas Representative Francisco Canseco, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Texas Senate nominee Ted Cruz, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno, New Mexico Governor Martinez (who also thrilled the crowd with a paean to gun ownership), Craig Romney (Mitt’s youngest son who did missionary work in Chile), Jeb Bush, and Senator Marco Rubio.

Republicans seem to have woken up to the fact that they’ll need some Hispanic votes in Florida and the battleground states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada — and they’re adjusting their strategies accordingly. (If Cruz wins in Texas, the GOP will have two Hispanic senators, equaling the Democrats’ previous record of two.)

There was a saying about minority politics back in the 1970s and 1980s: the Democrats could take the black vote for granted precisely because the Republicans wrote it off — and vice versa. That is no longer true in 2012. No one will be written off or taken for granted.

Both parties — and all ethnic groups — benefit when candidates compete for all voters. It is usually healthy for democracy when everyone’s voice is heard.