Tim Scott and the changing face of the Republican party

December 17, 2012

The appointment of Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate today is the latest example of Republicans doing everything they can to shed the perception that the party is comprised of old, white men. But will it work?

On a candidate level, Republicans can make an increasingly convincing case. Since 2010, Republicans have either elected or appointed a black Senator, two Hispanic Senators (Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas) as well as two Hispanic governors (Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada) and an Indian-American governor (Nikki Haley of South Carolina). That group joins Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American, who was elected in 2007.

"As the country changes, our party is walking the walk in reflecting the role of all Americans in our politics today," said Eric Ueland, a Republican lobbyist and one-tim chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.).

And yet, for all of their recent successes in electing non-white faces to positions of prominence, Republicans seems to be headed in the exact opposition direction when it comes to winning over African American and Hispanic voters.

In the 2012 election, President Obama won 93 percent of the black vote -- virtually unchanged from the 95 percent he won in 2008. Ditto Hispanic voters, which Obama won with 71 percent in 2012 after claiming 67 percent of the vote among Latinos in 2008.

Democrats insist that simply putting non-white faces in positions of power won't do much to change that political reality, arguing that policies pursued by Republicans -- particularly on immigration -- are the real reason why the GOP has struggled so mightily in minority communities.

Cesar Conda, Rubio's chief of staff, largely agreed with the idea that policies matter more than candidates;  "It can't hurt," Conda said of the emerging minority faces in the party but added: "Modernizing our agenda will have a  far more important impact on voters."

Other Republicans insist that the candidates are a first step -- that they are taking -- and that having as many high-profile non-white faces will allow them to speak to minority voters on a core level that they have struggled to do in the past.

"Minority politicians who are Democrats frequently win elections with overwhelming support from within their own racial or ethnic communities," said Jon Lerner, a consultant to both Haley and Scott. "Minority politicians who are conservatives, like Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, appeal to voters based on their ideas and values, not on their backgrounds."

Added Lerner: "That approach more closely embodies the colorblind ideal of Martin Luther King, and over time, it will have a positive effect on reaching minority voters who are not presently very open to listening to conservative views.”

While the increase in non-white Republican politicians in statewide office is striking, GOP pollster Whit Ayres argued that until the party nominated a Hispanic, African American or Indian-American for the nation's top office, it might struggle to win over minority voters. "It's a great start, but ultimately a party is defined by its presidential nominee," said Ayres.

Ayres' sentiment is the right one -- and makes clear just how important the 2016 presidential race will be for Republicans trying to remake their party's image.  Rubio and Jindal are widely expected to run for the top spot with Martinez, Sandoval, Scott and Cruz likely in the mix for vice president.  

At this point, it's virtually impossible to imagine -- from a purely political perspective -- the GOP not putting a black or a Hispanic somewhere on their presidential ticket in four years.  Whether doing so will change their ability to woo and win the votes of minority communities remains to be seen.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · December 17, 2012