United Colors of Benetton is an international clothing chain that highlights diversity in its advertising, and indeed that’s what the Rubio team sought to replicate here Friday: a youthful, diverse and aspirational tableau for a GOP desperate to expand its demographic appeal beyond older white men.
Onstage were a 44-year-old Indian American governor who faced discrimination as a young girl in rural Bamberg, S.C., and helped her parents run a small boutique; a 50-year-old African American senator who grew up in poverty and was mentored by a Chick-fil-A franchise owner; and a 51-year-old prosecutor-turned-congressman who cuts a contemporary figure in hipster glasses and trim suits.
Then there was Rubio, 44, the son of Cuban immigrants and a first-term senator from Florida who is seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination.
The foursome’s life stories and the dynamism they project together on the campaign trail are central to Rubio’s pitch to usher in generational change and expand the appeal of what he describes as a staid Republican Party.
“We have to take our message to people who aren’t with us now … to grow our party and our movement ,” Rubio said at the Columbia rally. “We can because we have credible people to do this.”
The Republican Party relies almost entirely on white voters for its electoral success. Rubio is hardly the first candidate who has promised to expand the GOP tent with outreach to minority communities, and Republicans before him have had a distinctly uneven record of being able to do so.
Symbolism aside, Republicans have had problems growing their coalition because of the positions Rubio and many other GOP candidates have taken — against providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
As he addressed the rally, Rubio intertwined his immigrant story with Haley’s and wove in Scott’s upbringing as well.
“Who’s going to tell Tim Scott he doesn’t understand what it’s like to grow up with challenges in their life?” Rubio asked. “Who’s going to tell Nikki Haley she doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a family trying to run a small business? Who’s going to tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to pay off student loan debt?”
He added: “We lived the way you live now. We come from where you come from.”
Haley, Scott and Gowdy are three of the most popular Republicans in South Carolina, and party leaders here take pride in their diversity, considering racial tensions have long shaped politics here.
Scott, in a brief interview following the rally, said this is the kind of image he hopes the national GOP can present in this fall’s general election.
“You throw Trey Gowdy in there as a young, highly educated, very articulate attorney, you throw a governor from Indian descent, an African American senator and a Cuban guy running for president, it just says so much about who we are as a Republican Party,” Scott said.
Dan Balz contributed to this report.