The GOP has had a pretty good story to tell this year in terms of race and African-American voters. Three black Republicans were elected to Congress — two in the House (Mia Love and Will Hurd) and one in the Senate (Tim Scott). Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and others are making outreach efforts, as is the Republican National Committee. Overall, Republicans did better among African American voters, particularly in states like Ohio.
But that good news could be overtaken by some other news: The new House majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, spoke to a white nationalist group in 2002.
From Robert Costa's story:
“Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints,” said Moira Bagley, Scalise’s spokesperson. “In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around. In 2002, he made himself available to anyone who wanted to hear his proposal to eliminate slush funds that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars as well as his opposition to a proposed tax increase on middle-class families.”
She added, “He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question. The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband, and a devoted Catholic.”
The group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, was founded by David Duke, a white supremacist and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke, as you might recall, was the GOP standard-bearer in the 1991 Louisiana governor's race.
Scalise's people said that he had no idea about the group's ideology. They are essentially blaming poor planning and lack of research for how Scalise ended up speaking before a group of white nationalists. (Erick Erikson asks a good question over at RedState: How do you show up at a David Duke event and not know what it is?) This excuse, while perhaps a valid one, doesn't change the fact that this is a very bad thing for Scalise, who is the third-ranking member of the House, and for the GOP as they attempt rebranding with minority voters.
Back in 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) found himself in a somewhat similar position. He said at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that if the country would have elected Thurmond as president, it would have avoided all sorts of problems. Thurmond was an avowed segregationist when he ran for president in 1948.
Lott went on Black Entertainment Television to apologize for his comments. But an apology wasn't enough. Lott later resigned his position.
It's one thing for party back-benchers to affiliate with people who make racially insensitive comments or to make such comments themselves, but it is quite another for someone in leadership to do the same thing. The GOP will be hard-pressed to tout Love and Scott and Hurd and also have Scalise out-front as the face of the party as it tries to broaden its base — not just among blacks, but to also appeal to moderate whites and others.
With Scalise in leadership, the GOP will keep having to answer questions about him. They will keep having to explain how he ended up at an event for neo-Nazis. And even if the story blows over, the GOP is still left with their perception problem,with Scalise as pretty good fuel. It's quite a tight rope for the GOP and in the end, the downside of keeping Scalise could outweigh the upside.