Republican governors' goal: A new face for the GOP

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010

SAN DIEGO - There's nothing particularly subtle about one of the goals at this week's Republican Governors Association meeting - nothing less than an effort to start rebranding a political party long known as a bastion of white men.

The midterm elections produced a series of firsts that broke racial and gender barriers, and Republicans were the beneficiaries, helping to change the face of their party. The irony is that the victories came despite the fact that Latino voters solidly backed Democratic candidates in virtually every race in the country and that women generally voted in smaller numbers than men for Republican candidates in competitive races.

The midterm elections brought to power the nation's first female Hispanic governor (New Mexico's Susana Martinez) and first female Indian American governor (South Carolina's Nikki Haley). In addition, voters in Nevada elected their first Hispanic governor, Brian Sandoval, while Oklahomans elected their first female chief executive, Mary Fallin. All are Republicans.

The GOP will now have a more diverse cast of governors than will the Democrats, with four women (Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was reelected), two Hispanics and two Indian Americans (the other is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal). Two more female governors, Hawaii's Linda Lingle and Connecticut's M. Jodi Rell, will be leaving, however.

The question now is whether Republicans can capitalize on their successes in ways that, particularly in regard to the Hispanic community, have long eluded them. "It's a door-opener," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). "It gives you some credibility, or at least an opening with a group that perhaps would have shut you out."

Martinez said in an interview that she rarely thought about becoming the first female Hispanic governor but knows she carries an additional burden to succeed.

"I really do believe that history is going to be made in how we turn the state around, and then it will be, it happened to be the Hispanic woman in New Mexico," she said. "That to me is more meaningful."

She added, "I don't run from it because I understand the responsibility, but I also understand that if you don't do it right, what do you leave behind with young girls?"

"We have seen too many times that minorities and females have been labels," Haley said at Wednesday afternoon's opening plenary session of the RGA meeting. "We're not labels. Women didn't vote for me because I'm a woman. They're smarter than that. Indians didn't vote for me because I was Indian."

Apart from the successes, several Republican women lost their races this month, including two in California. Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman lost the governor's race to Democrat Jerry Brown, despite record spending, while former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina lost to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D).

Oklahoma's Fallin spoke of the additional burden women carry as candidates. "Women have to earn the respect," she said. "They have to earn the seat at the table to have a position to be able to voice their opinions."

GOP leaders here appeared eager to showcase their diverse ranks. Cracking the Hispanic vote has been a high priority for Republicans for more than two decades, but only rarely have GOP candidates done well with the fastest-growing segment of the population.

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