Courtesy of Jennifer-Ruth Green Campaign
Lt. Col. Jennifer-Ruth Green won the GOP primary in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District last month and will take on the Democratic incumbent in the fall. Diverse candidates like Ms. Green, an Air Force reservist, represent a critical part of the GOP’s effort to win more Democratic-held seats.

GOP makes gains with minorities. Will it change the party?

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When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tore up President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech in February 2020, she inspired a Black female Iraq War veteran to run for office – as a Republican. Last month that veteran, Lt. Col. Jennifer-Ruth Green, won the GOP primary in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District. If she prevails in November, she would flip her district to the GOP.

It’s a strategy Republicans launched a decade ago and are increasingly leaning in on: recruiting and supporting candidates of color who could represent and appeal to a broader range of voters. In 2020, all but one of the 14 House seats the GOP flipped were won by a woman or minority candidate.

Why We Wrote This

Republicans are fielding a small but increasing number of diverse candidates. The strategy is showing signs of success. The question is how far it will go and how much it might change the party.

Proponents hail this as a slow but genuine transformation of a party that was established on an anti-slavery platform but later attracted many Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights. Critics, however, see the GOP’s diversity initiatives as essentially a fig leaf that obscures the party’s unwillingness to grapple with racist strains within.

“It used to be window dressing. It’s more than that now,” says Charlie Cook, founder of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But their motives are not necessarily high-minded. They’ve found a strategy that wins, and they’re going for it.”

When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tore up President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech in February 2020, she inspired a Black female Iraq War veteran to run for office – as a Republican.

As Lt. Col. Jennifer-Ruth Green watched Ms. Pelosi’s symbolic gesture on television, she thought to herself: Congress declares war. If you are telling me that you are not listening, how do I know when you declare war that you have heard all sides?  

“In the military, we focus on bringing people together regardless of any differences, because the mission is so important,” says Lieutenant Colonel Green, an Air Force reservist who won the GOP primary in Indiana’s 1st Congressional District last month. 

Why We Wrote This

Republicans are fielding a small but increasing number of diverse candidates. The strategy is showing signs of success. The question is how far it will go and how much it might change the party.

While the political environment looks increasingly favorable to Republicans heading into the fall midterms, the number of competitive districts has dwindled compared with previous cycles, thanks to aggressive gerrymandering. So diverse candidates like Ms. Green represent a critical part of the GOP’s effort to win more Democratic-held seats.

It’s a strategy Republicans launched a decade ago and are leaning in on: recruiting and supporting candidates of color who could represent and appeal to a broader range of voters. In 2020, all but one of the 14 House seats the GOP flipped were won by a woman or minority candidate. And in statewide races, women and minorities accounted for 71% of the party’s successes, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). Of the 16 nonwhite freshmen who entered Congress two months later, more than half were Republican.

The party still has a long way to go. Overall, 83% of nonwhite members of Congress are Democrats, while 17% are Republicans. Still, that represents an increase over the last Congress, when 10% were Republicans. 

Proponents hail this shift as a slow but genuine transformation of a party that was established on an anti-slavery platform but later attracted many Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights. Critics, however, see the GOP’s diversity initiatives as essentially a fig leaf that obscures the party’s unwillingness to grapple with racist strains within. For now, at least, it may come down to who can win. 

“It used to be window dressing. It’s more than that now,” says Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections. “But their motives are not necessarily high-minded. They’ve found a strategy that wins, and they’re going for it.”  

As the GOP has made big gains with working-class voters in recent years, those gains have increasingly included working-class minorities – particularly Hispanics, one of the fastest-growing electorates, but also Black voters. In 2020, President Trump saw a 10-point gain in Hispanic support compared with 2016. A Wall Street Journal poll late last year showed that Hispanic support for the GOP has risen even more since then, with voters now evenly split between the parties.

The reasons for these gains are complicated, but they reflect in part a sense among some working-class people of color that the Democratic Party has moved too far left on cultural issues, as well as a receptivity to the GOP’s economic message of lower taxes and support for small businesses.

At a time when many voters are focused on soaring gas prices and grocery bills, Republicans see an opening for even bigger gains among minority groups. And whether there’s a genuine desire for transformation or not, bringing more GOP candidates of color into Congress and the nation’s state legislatures could change both the party’s voter base and its policies.

“By having more diverse voices in the party, it’s an invitation to some folks who never considered it,” says Tanya Contreras Wheeless, a Mexican American running for Congress in Arizona.

The first seeds

In 2012, the GOP saw a net gain of only one Hispanic legislator across all 50 states. It was an inauspicious start for a new effort to recruit diverse Republican candidates to local and state offices, initially focused on women and Hispanic candidates. But despite a relatively modest budget, the RSLC’s Future Majority Project steadily gained steam. The next cycle, in 2014, they recruited 240 diverse candidates in 40 states, 43 of whom won. 

The following cycle, they gave a young Jason Miyares not only money but also strategic advice on everything from press releases to policy. The Cuban American landed a seat in Virginia’s state legislature and won his subsequent reelection bids. Last fall, he narrowly beat his Democratic opponent to become attorney general – and the first Hispanic of either party to be elected to statewide office in Virginia. 

“You’re seeing those seeds that were planted in the last decade starting to bear fruit,” says Attorney General Miyares. “I think that has been a good thing for our country and for the party.” 

On the opposite coast, the Future Majority Project invested in Young Kim, a Korean American small-business owner who won election to the California State Legislature in 2014 by leaning into her story as an immigrant. “I really focused on how my party is the Grand Opportunity Party that was working on pro-growth policies to make life affordable, keeping families safe, and ensuring future generations can pursue their American dream,” she says. After serving one term, she set her sights on Congress – and in 2020, she helped the GOP take back four of the seven seats that Democrats had flipped in the 2018 election. 

Heading into the 2022 midterms, more minority Republican candidates are looking to follow in the footsteps of Attorney General Miyares and Representative Kim. Among them is Ms. Wheeless of Arizona, who says she grew concerned when she saw Congress and the Biden administration increasing the scope of government “handouts,” sending COVID-19 relief checks to people who hadn’t even lost their jobs. 

“We absolutely should have safety nets for our vulnerable populations; I support that 100%,” says Ms. Wheeless, a lifelong conservative and former small-business owner. “One of the things I learned in business, and I think absolutely applies to government, is that when you try to do everything, you don’t do it very well. When you focus in on the really acute needs and the things you can do best, you’re actually much more successful.”

Ms. Wheeless is running in Arizona’s 4th District, which includes Phoenix and which the Cook Political Report recently shifted from “Likely D” to “Lean D.” As of March, she had raised more money than all but one of her five GOP opponents, including $10,000 from House Republican Caucus leader Elise Stefanik’s super PAC. 

To build a bigger pipeline of people like Ms. Wheeless, the RSLC last fall introduced the Right Leaders Network, headlined by national Republican officials who got their start in state office. They include Representative Kim and three potential 2024 presidential candidates: Sens. Marco Rubio and Tim Scott, the only Black Senate Republican, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants.

John Bazemore/AP/File
Former Gov. Nikki Haley is shown signing a law enabling the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina's statehouse, July 9, 2015, in Columbia. “It makes me so mad when people say America is a racist country," the former U.N. ambassador told a group of Black pastors. "Because I am a perfect example of why it’s not.”

The goal is not only to inspire more minorities to run for state office as Republicans but also to encourage those who have been elected to parlay that success into winning seats in Congress.

“A lot of progress has been made, but we needed to do more,” says Kamilah Prince, who until recently was the political director at the RSLC. “We are the face of the future of the party, literally.” 

Taking it to the national level

As a room full of Black pastors savored the last forkfuls of dessert in an upscale Washington, D.C., hotel last fall, Ambassador Haley took the podium. “When I think of my hardest times, it’s the faith leaders I remember,” said Ms. Haley, who worked her way up to a Trump Cabinet position after serving as a state legislator and later governor of South Carolina.

The single hardest moment, she told the group, was when as governor she reached out to the pastor of the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston after getting word of the 2015 shooting during a Bible study. His phone rang and rang in his pocket. He had already been killed, as were eight other worshippers. 

Charleston, already shaken by the police shooting of Walter Scott two months prior, threatened to devolve into racial violence as Ferguson and Baltimore had in recent months. The next day, the killer’s racist manifesto was released and his face was all over national media with the Confederate flag – a flag that South Carolina still flew at its statehouse.

When Ms. Haley finally persuaded the state Legislature to take down the flag and the flagpole, it was cemented so strongly in the ground that it broke the first crane that tried to dismantle it. “Isn’t it symbolic: How deep-seated some things are, but how persistence can continue to tap at that?” she asked the pastors at the luncheon, which was part of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education’s national policy summit. 

“Our job is to fight racism and discrimination everywhere it exists. We have to address the challenges that hold people back,” she continued, pointing to an education system that fails too many students and an economy that traps people in poverty. But “it makes me so mad when people say America is a racist country. Because I am a perfect example of why it’s not.” 

Many Republicans see the rise of anti-racist initiatives like The 1619 Project and the influence of critical race theory as having shifted the national conversation on race in an unhelpful direction. In this view, racism is increasingly presented as a defining feature of American democracy, built into the very structures of U.S. society and governing ideals. To those on the right, this new doctrine is undermining a shared love of country, while imposing a divisive racial lens on everything.

Those on the left criticize the GOP for tolerating or even abetting racism, citing the white nationalist and white supremacist views espoused by some Trump supporters and even members of Congress like Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, who last year shared an anime video that showed him assassinating Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Critics argue that putting a few more diverse faces out in front of a party that refuses to reckon with such elements won’t help anything and could even entrench the problem by giving Republicans plausible deniability. 

Senator Scott has faced a barrage of racist attacks, including being called an “Uncle Tim,” and at times he has called out members of his party on racial issues. Perhaps most notably, he criticized President Trump for not taking a stronger stand against hatred and violence in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 Charlottesville rally.

But while he acknowledges he has been willing to speak out “when necessary,” he has largely focused on helping minority communities advance and prosper through economic opportunity. Under President Trump, who included Senator Scott’s Opportunity Zones initiative in his 2017 tax cut bill, Black and Hispanic poverty rates reached all-time lows before that progress was halted by the pandemic. 

“Race, or racism, is not a partisan issue,” Senator Scott told the Monitor. “It has to do with the depravity of man.”

To be sure, Republicans of color acknowledge difficult chapters in American history and in their own lives. Since entering the Senate in 2013, Senator Scott has been stopped numerous times in the Capitol by security who didn’t realize he was a lawmaker, as well as by police when driving. Ambassador Haley told the pastors of watching her Sikh father get humiliated at a produce stand as a girl, a memory that still pains her. But they say they nevertheless hold a positive vision of America that they believe speaks to voters of all backgrounds on the campaign trail. 

“We’ve had horrific chapters in our nation’s history – but we are unique,” says Attorney General Miyares. He encourages voters to celebrate the second chances America has given to people from all backgrounds, races, and faiths over the course of its history – including his mother, who fled communist Cuba in 1965. “That resonates.” 

(Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the amount of funds Ms. Wheeless received from Rep. Stefanik’s super PAC and clarify her Mexican heritage.)

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