Democrats’ diversity drought

Come January, Republicans will have at least as many minority senators as Democrats and will have four minority governors to Democrats' one.

The Senate appointment of Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) on Monday mean that, at least for now, the GOP will have three incoming minority senators, and Democrats will have two or three (depending on who is appointed to Inouye's seat, though it seems likely to be another minority candidate).

For whatever reason, the GOP is doing a better job of cultivating minority candidates for major statewide office these days. But why?

The answer isn't simple, but a big reason for it is actually a law that was designed to help minorities: The Voting Rights Act.


The appointment of Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to the Senate means Republicans will have at least as many minority senators as Democrats come January. (Alan Hawes-AP)

The VRA was passed in 1965 as a response to electoral discrimination against African-Americans in the South. Since its passage, it has led to the creation of dozens of House districts where minorities -- mostly black voters, but also Hispanics -- comprise a majority of a congressional seat's electorate. And it has worked, with the ranks of minorities in the House swelling in recent decades, the vast majority of them being Democrats.

The problem for Democrats is that this practice is also preventing many of these minority candidates from taking the next step.

While the law mandates so-called "majority-minority" districts mostly in the South, the practice of packing congressional districts with minorities -- whether black or Hispanic -- has become the standard across the country. Minority groups like the idea because it virtually guarantees the election of minority candidates, and Republicans like it because it packs as many traditionally Democratic voters into as few districts as possible, leaving more Republican-leaning districts nearby. (That's is a big reason the GOP has a clear advantage in a majority of congressional districts these days.)

The problem with these districts is that they don't often elect the kinds of candidates who can run and win gubernatorial and Senate races. Instead, they elect candidates who appeal to a very homogeneous electorate that doesn't exist in a statewide race.

It isn't just a race thing, either. Heavily liberal and heavily conservative congressional districts rarely produce candidates who run for or win statewide office either. The problem is the homogeneity of the district, not race. Majority-minority districts are just, as it happens, among the most homogeneous and heavily Democratic districts in the country.

In order for Democrats to build a more robust group of minority recruits, they would be better served to have more evenly drawn districts that include significant minority populations but not necessarily a majority. Elections in recent years have proven that these districts can also produce minority candidates who have both a leg up in the primary (because many or most primary voters are minorities) and have a good chance to win the general election because of the districts' Democratic lean.

Not everyone agrees with this hypothesis, though. David Canon, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who has written a book on the VRA, said majority-minority districts can and have produced minority candidates with broad appeal.

“The ‘unintended consequence’ of the new districts that were created because of the VRA in 1992 is that many of the new African-American House members practiced a politics of commonality rather than a politics of difference,” Canon told The Fix. “That is, the new black House members were more like Barack Obama or Cory Booker than John Conyers or Maxine Waters -- they tried to balance the interests of their white and black constituents.”

In fact, though, Obama may argue The Fix's point better than anyone.

The president is the best example of a minority candidate with broad appeal who won statewide (and then nationwide). But he also lost a primary in a heavily black and heavily Democratic Chicago congressional district to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000.

The problem for Democrats is that Obama is the exception rather than the rule. In states with lots of black and Hispanic voters like California, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico and in the South, minority candidates often win heavily minority districts, but Democrats haven't cultivated them in other more competitive districts that more closely mirror a statewide electorate.

In fact, the National Journal reported that Democrats elected just six minorities to majority-white districts and states in 2010. And they actually had fewer minorities elected to such offices than Republicans did.

That paradigm has begun to shift, with Democrats nominating minority candidates in several swing districts this year. But very few won in November, including Reps.-elect Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) and Joe Garcia (D-Fla.). (Garcia, we should note, won a swing seat in South Florida that is also heavily Hispanic.)

If Democrats want to elect more minorities to statewide office, they will need to run them in these kinds of races and win. So far, though, they haven't been doing that with any regularity. 

Alternatively, for the reasons detailed above, Democrats and minority groups could also push to stop the packing of minority voters into majority-minority districts. Of course, that's very politically difficult, as it will appear as if line-drawers are trying to dilute the influence of minorities in Congress.

But in the long run, such a move would likely expand the number of black and Latino Democrats elected governor and senator -- and quite possibly even to the House. After all, if minority voters are spread out over multiple districts rather than packed into a few, there will be significantly more seats for minority Democrats to compete for, and they still have the built-in advantages we discussed above.

And the minority candidates who win those seats, in turn, will have demonstrated the kind of broader appeal that may make Democratic leaders apt to recruit them for governor and Senate contests.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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