In the fallout of the 2012 presidential election, the American media has continually discussed the nature of the GOP’s alleged “race” problem. The Republican Party, which lost in the election black, Hispanic, and Asian votes by 89, 47, and 51 percent, respectively, began to deliver rhetoric of reform. Apologies gave way to admissions of guilt and to pledges of turnaround in both message and policy within the GOP. Florida Senator Marco Rubio commented that, “Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to [minorities],” and even Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, was quoted in Politico as saying that the GOP “needs to realize that it’s too old and too white and too male.”
Cardenas, who went on to say that the party “needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late,” has been part of efforts to cultivate a new party image. His message rests on the argument that because the top public faces of the GOP, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner, are primarily white males, the party’s struggles among minority voter blocs can be attributed to the identities of its top representatives.
However, this discussion of issues of race in the GOP is derived from the tacitly incorrect assumption that minority candidates best represent “minority issues.” It similarly incorrectly characterizes the party’s views and history with race, while ignoring the larger, more immediate problems facing the GOP: communication and accessibility.
Who Are the Best Representatives?
Timothy Johnson is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a public policy organization that, according to Johnson in an interview with the Harvard Political Review, attempts to “raise awareness about a variety of different issues that affect the black community” and assert that specific “black issues” such as unemployment, incarceration, and education, disproportionately affect the black community.
Interestingly, Johnson denies that black candidates are inherently better at representing these issues than representatives of other ethnicities. More important, according to Johnson, is how a representative chooses to stand for those issues.
Former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, the only African-American congressman to vote against the Affordable Care Act, agrees. Davis, who represented a community that was sixty percent black, says that for most of the black community, the most important issues to voters deal with policy and not skin color. Davis pointed to Rep. Steve Cohen’s Memphis district as an example of a white congressman in a majority African-American district who was able to defeat black challengers. Cohen has retained his seat through numerous races, including a challenge from former black Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Davis told the HPR that, “For the overwhelming majority of the African-American voters there… is no special affinity for a candidate because he is black,” particularly given that recent history has shown that these voters “prefer white liberal Democrats to a more conservative black Democrats.”
Republican National Hispanic Assembly Chair Alci Maldonado, whose grass-roots organization seeks to bridge the barriers between the GOP and the Hispanic-American community, expressed sentiments similar to those of Johnson and Davis. Maldonado said Hispanics largely share the same concerns as other Americans—the economy, education, and national security—and he asserted that although diversity is important in politics, it is not the driving factor behind Latino political votes. “As long as the politician advocates and articulates these issues with clarity and sincerity,” Maldonado told the HPR, “voters will respond accordingly, irrespective of their ethnic background.”
Revising National Stereotypes
To be sure, the issue for the GOP, then, is not primarily one involving the ethnic makeup of its leadership, but rather one of public perception. Maldonado recalled how the party’s long history of supporting abolition, feminism, and civil rights legislation has often been forgotten.
Johnson similarly expressed that the GOP does a “terrible job” of promoting ethnic candidates and diversity within the party, even though this is an important part of the GOP’s future going forward, given that the share of Caucasians in the overall electorate has been steadily decreasing. Johnson argues that, in particular within the GOP, “There is a need for more positive promotions of black Republicans to understand that skin color does not dictate party affiliation.”
Within the history of his party, Johnson has plenty to point to. The first twenty-one black congressmen were Republican, four of the first five Hispanic senators identified with the GOP, and an African-American, Michael Steele, has even chaired the Republican National Committee. The only two current Hispanic senators, Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are also both Republican.
Both Johnson and Davis discussed the stigmas associated with being a black Republican, something that Johnson said he sees as a larger problem within the Republican Party. According to Johnson, “When you talk to blacks who say that all blacks who are Republican are in some way token, that’s where the party fails,” because such comments actually encourage a larger and undue stereotype of homogeneity within the African-American demographic overall.
In the Deep South, Davis said, there is also still a history of racially tinged campaigns that has made the Republican Party unelectable to many black voters who still remember campaigns waged by Republican candidates like Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act.
Communicating a Message
The presence of stereotypes and stigmas afflicting both the GOP and conservative minority candidates illustrates the biggest issues within the Republican Party. According to Hispanic Leadership Network Executive Director Jennifer Korn, the GOP struggles with outreach into minority communities and with targeting specific blocs of voters with different backgrounds. Korn explains that while Democrats have few qualms about targeting specific groups, Republicans see the electorate as much more unified and “don’t do as much coalition building because they view Americans as Americans.” Korn also points to mischaracterization of the party message in the media as a problem hindering outreach efforts, particularly when it involves topics such as immigration.
When extremist voices like Richard Mourdock drive the GOP’s larger message, Korn explains, they not only ignore the feelings of the majority of the party, but also open the door for political foes to exploit their comments for political gain. For example, most Republicans, according to Korn, take a fairly moderate stance on immigration, however a few loud voices in the media dominate the discussion for the Republicans, which allows Democrats to campaign on these issues and paint the party with a broad brush.
Unlike Korn, Johnson blames party officials for the problems with misconceptions with the Republican Party. He cites the 2012 Republican National Convention as an example, given that the speaking lineup reflected homogeneous Caucasian faces of the party, instead of minority party officials. Johnson points out that at the Convention, the most senior black Republican in the country, Jennifer Carroll, did not have a speaking position.
Johnson also noted how several other prominent black Republicans were also denied a chance to speak at the Convention and how this impacted the blacks in the election. In particular, Michael Steele and Herman Cain did not have national speaking roles, which gave the impression, according to Johnson, “that the Republican Party does not appreciate its blacks, especially those trailblazers who have sacrificed a lot.”
Where to Go From Here?
Moving forward, Korn believes that the GOP needs to regain the focus it had during the years of President George W. Bush. Korn, who ran the Hispanic outreach for Bush, notes that while the party currently lacks direction, it need only look at the templates for success it already created.
Issues of communication and accessibility that currently plague the party were not as problematic in 2004, when Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic voting bloc. Similarly, Bush’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, routinely won a larger percentage of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote than current senator and Cuban-American Rubio. As such, Korn emphasizes that the GOP does in fact have the ability to compete in diverse demographic groups, and that the answer to how to do so resides not so much in policy as in effort. She prioritized redefining the GOP as more moderate and centrist in its message.
Maldonado believes that much of the Hispanic demographic holds conservative values similar to those of the GOP, including those of “limited but responsible government, fewer taxes, more individual freedom, and equality of opportunity.”
Although Maldonado expressed satisfaction with the efforts of the GOP, Johnson said that he has not seen enough urgency among the party about its future among African-American voters, because, in his view, “It is uncomfortable for some people to talk about black issues [even as] we have no problem talking about women’s issues.” He stresses that change will be gradual but that the focus for the future needs to go beyond two-year election cycles and towards the broader goals of developing new perceptions and discussing issues that matter to African-Americans.
These sentiments reflect a reconciliation of differing opinions in the GOP. While the media incorrectly blames political homogeneity for the GOP’s faults, problems with accessibility and communication resonate more loudly as the party moves forward. The problems they face are not easily solved; to improve, the party must mix policy moderation with a rededication to outreach into minority communities. Overcoming a history of racist campaigns in the South and harsh rhetoric on issues of women’s rights and immigration requires a party-wide commitment to reverting to the GOP’s roots—to Lincoln and Roosevelt, and other Republican civil rights pioneers. If this is done, the future of American politics could change quite dramatically.