When it comes to attracting minority voters, Republicans are starting to catch up with Democrats in one key way in Virginia: recruiting nonwhite candidates to run for public office.
In primaries last week for this fall’s legislative elections, Republicans nominated two Asians and one Hispanic, as well as a Jewish immigrant from Belarus. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, two Asian American Democrats ran and fell short in the primaries, as did several women and African American candidates. The Democratic candidates nominated in competitive races Tuesday were entirely white and male.
“For two cycles in a row, we have a field that looks and feels like Northern Virginia,” said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who is working to prepare the GOP for the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats continue to win the lion’s share of minority votes, and the party includes far more nonwhite public officials in its ranks. On top of that, Virginia’s booming population of Latinos and Asians, particularly in the suburbs of Washington, has helped give Democrats an undeniable edge in recent statewide elections: They haven’t lost one in six years.
In other words, the Republican focus on recruiting minority candidates isn’t likely to translate immediately into new victories among nonwhite voters. But it reflects a reality that GOP strategists are keenly aware of: If they don’t try to win a greater share of the minority vote, they are ceding to Democrats the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. And if they figure out how to do it, the Virginia GOP could become a model for other crucial swing states where minority voters can make or break the outcome of elections.
Both the Hispanic and Asian populations in the state are growing, especially in Northern Virginia. Since 2010, roughly 60,000 Asians and 80,000 Hispanics have arrived in the state — enough to help sway the outcomes of elections in a state with about 5.2 million registered voters. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), for instance, won his election in 2013 by a margin of just 54,000 votes.
Republicans in Virginia and nationally have very publicly tried to expand their party’s appeal with minorities. Not only do Republicans want to capture at least some sliver of this population, but they also want to signal to younger white voters that the party is inclusive.
Two Republican women were nominated in Senate contests Tuesday and are expected to win in November. A third is challenging state Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke), who is vulnerable in a three-way race that includes an independent who could steal Democratic votes.
In Loudoun County, Vietnamese immigrant Chuong Nguyen is running for the seat being vacated by Del. David I. Ramadan (R). Korean American Sang Yi is challenging Del. David L. Bulova (D) in Fairfax. Hispanic businessman Danny Vargas is running for retiring Republican Del. Thomas David Rust’s seat in Herndon.
All three districts have significant Asian and Hispanic populations. And in all these cases, along with a supervisor race in Fairfax, Republicans quickly rallied around their minority candidates, rather than throwing them into tough primaries.
There is no stronger sign of the importance of minority voters to politicians than the growing number of community events and ethnic festivals appearing on the schedules of both Republicans and Democrats. Last year while on the congressional campaign trail in Northern Virginia, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) hopped from Latino-heavy Manassas to Indian and Pakistani festivals to the Vietnamese-dominated Eden Center shopping mall in Falls Church.
And on Saturday, both parties set up tables at an annual festival in Annandale, the center of Virginia’s Korean American community. A handful of officeholders also attended, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), state Sen David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) and Fairfax Board Chair Sharon Bulova (D). One wore a straw hat; another carried a handheld fan. They greeted constituents and visited food booths, sampling spring rolls and talking to the crowd. On stage, several of them attempted broken phrases of Korean and Spanish.
“We have welcomed so many people from so many walks of life,” Fairfax Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) said. “We’ve made it work.” She cited diversity as the “bedrock in our community.”
Although Democrats still dominate in most minority communities, they were less successful in some ways than Republicans in last week’s primaries when it came to recruiting minority candidates into open races.
Several Democrats were particularly bothered that the establishment rallied around Jeremy McPike for an open Senate seat in Prince William County over Atif Qarni, a math teacher and former Marine who entered the race first and with stronger fundraising.
“My understanding was that the current Democratic caucus unofficially made it clear that their favorite was Jeremy McPike,” said Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax), who supported Qarni. “I’m a little bit frustrated that our party doesn’t think about, to the extent that’s possible, if we have two or three candidates that are strong and equally qualified, think about diversity.”
Minority communities have long felt taken for granted by a party that overwhelmingly wins the support of blacks, Latinos and Asians year after year. For some, party leaders’ preference for McPike exacerbated those feelings.
“We felt in the general election, talking to people in Prince William, that [McPike] was the strongest candidate,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said. “You want the best candidate out there in the general election.”
The open seat in Prince William, being vacated by Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D), is a rare swing seat on the edge of the D.C. region. Nearly half black and Hispanic and 8 percent Asian, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s one of the most diverse districts in the state.
Qarni said he thinks that some local party leaders were concerned that his Muslim religion would hamper his bid.
In a 2011 Senate race, party leaders favored Arlington County Board member Barbara A. Favola (D) over lawyer Jaime Areizaga-Soto. According to a local blogger, she noted in a phone conversation that there are few Latinos in the district. Del. Michael T. Futrell (D-Prince William), who is African American, got little support before his surprise victory in a 2013 House of Delegates race. He, too, ran for Colgan’s Senate seat and came in third.
The problem is in part an unintended consequence of the party’s success in Northern Virginia.
In the D.C. suburbs, so many offices are held by Democrats that turnover is rare and open seats attract multiple strong candidates. Lacking the internal ideological divisions that have bedeviled Republicans in the state, Democrats rarely challenge incumbents.
“It’s very, very competitive,” said Sue Langley, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee and an immigrant from Thailand. Running and sustaining a political career, she said, is “very difficult, particularly for first-generation immigrants — they have to earn their living.”
She noted that the county party has two Hispanic candidates and one African American competing this fall: two for school board and one challenging Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). In local races across Northern Virginia, four women and two African Americans were elected.
Democrats remain the far more diverse party. Twenty of the 23 nonwhite state lawmakers in office are Democrats. Democratic districts, too, tend to be less white. The party is fielding a female challenger against Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) and an African American man to take on Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach). In the Richmond area, two African American candidates were nominated for open House seats. A Hispanic candidate was just recruited to take on Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who hasn’t faced a Democratic challenge since 2003.
Democrats are also rallying nonwhite voters via the legal system. A lawsuit filed Thursday challenges the state’s photo voter identification law and would restore voting rights to nonviolent former felons.
Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.