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Republicans still hard-pressed for minority support
Outreach helps McDonnell little Scant backing highlights challenges

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Despite his efforts to reach out to black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority groups in his campaign for governor, Robert F. McDonnell's decisive victory Tuesday was largely the result of his overwhelming support among white voters.

According to exit polling, 67 percent of white voters backed the Republican over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. He got a larger share of the white vote than any Republican in Washington Post exit polls dating to 1994, with the exception of President George W. Bush in 2004.

One in four nonwhite voters statewide went for McDonnell, about average for Republicans in Virginia with the exception of last year's history-making election, when one in five nonwhite residents voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

McDonnell won big in many of the increasingly diverse Washington suburbs. But his scant support from minorities, despite his efforts, suggests a challenge for the GOP as it tries to retain power in a state that is a destination for immigrants.

McDonnell's campaign targeted a variety of groups whose influx into Northern Virginia has contributed to its recent Democratic shift. He met with Chinese and Korean business leaders, rallied with Hispanic residents in Fairfax County, and conducted a phone bank that contacted 30,000 independent and Republican-leaning Asian voters. He also reached out to black voters in Richmond, and an African American businesswoman was one of his most visible supporters.

Some observers think McDonnell's efforts might have been most effective among whites who embrace multiculturalism, particularly in affluent, educated and diverse parts of Northern Virginia.

"A lot of moderate white voters want to feel inclusive. They feel uncomfortable with people who have any forms of bigotry or anything around them," said Republican former congressman Tom Davis, who represented parts of Northern Virginia.

"African American voters are a very tough sell for Republicans, but it doesn't mean you don't be nice to them or go to their events or respond to their concerns. And in the process, other voters will look at that as a symbol," Davis said.

Democrats' appeal

McDonnell struggled against the Democrats' historical appeal among black voters and many immigrant groups. That trend intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and with the harsh tone some Republicans have adopted over illegal immigration.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), whose Northern Virginia district encompasses some of its most diverse areas, said his party continues to be the one of civil rights.

"The Democrats are willing to open the tent and to actually reach out to help people who have not been able to make it into the economic and social mainstream," he said. "There are a lot of things [McDonnell] could do to strengthen himself and the Republican Party, and one of them would be to adopt a more moderate approach to immigration."

Few think the Republican Party could lure away a substantive number of African Americans. But Republicans are more hopeful about Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

Some Republican leaders say it is critical to reach out to Hispanic residents, who are projected to make up nearly 25 percent of the population by 2050. They say that newcomers could be drawn to the GOP because of its emphasis on personal responsibility but that they have been hindered by the perception that the party is intolerant and exclusive.

Illegal immigration

In Virginia, Republicans' efforts were particularly damaged a couple of years ago when lawmakers -- including McDonnell, who was then attorney general -- responded to simmering anger over illegal immigration by pledging to withhold services and increase deportations. That stance harmed the party's standing among Hispanic residents and legal immigrants from groups who viewed the effort as xenophobic, some Republicans said.

"Some of it is self-inflicted wounds on the part of Republicans," said Linda Chavez, head of a conservative think tank on multicultural issues. "You can't rant and rave about illegal immigration as if it is the biggest issue in America when it is clearly not."

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 65 percent of Hispanic voters nationwide consider themselves Democrats or lean that way, and 26 percent identify with Republicans.

The gap suggests an opening for Republicans, but only if they follow McDonnell's lead in abandoning their emphasis on illegal immigration, Chavez said.

Hanif Akhtar, a Pakistani American Republican from Vienna, called the conservative values espoused by Republicans a better match for Muslims, who he says tend to be more socially conservative. But that natural affinity has been disrupted, he said, by incendiary statements from conservative pundits, who have mocked President Obama's attempts to reach out to the Muslim world.

But Akhtar thinks McDonnell's efforts were worthy because gestures matter. A McCain supporter last year, Akhtar laughs warmly as he recalls an interview on Pakistani television in which Obama boasted of his ability to cook dal, a lentil dish he learned to make from Pakistani American friends. "I wish he were a Republican," Akhtar joked.

Washington Post polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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