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This inflammatory ad reveals why Republican women of color have a hard time getting elected

What we can learn from how former lawmaker Mia Love upheld the GOP’s racial narratives — until she didn’t.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attends a House Oversight Committee hearing on prescription drugs prices on July 26. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

During the Sept. 13 Democratic debate, ABC aired a 30-second ad that showed a burning picture of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, equating her policies to those of the Khmer Rouge. The ad features Elizabeth Heng, a Cambodian American woman and former Republican congressional candidate who lost her 2018 race against incumbent Rep. Jim Costa of California.

“Mine is a face of freedom,” Heng says in the ad, contrasting herself to Ocasio-Cortez, “My skin is not white. I’m not outrageous, racist, nor socialist. I’m a Republican.”

Heng considers the ad part of the launch for her new super PAC, New Faces GOP, which is dedicated to recruiting and training diverse Republican candidates like herself.

It’s true that the GOP has a diversity problem. After all, of the 47 women of color now serving in Congress, only one is a Republican.

Can New Faces diversify the GOP? Here’s what political science research can tell us about the electoral challenges for Republican women of color in the Trump era.

Why women of color are represented on the left — but not on the right

To be sure, women of color on both sides of the aisle face various race- and gender-specific challenges when running for office. But there are reasons we continue to see such drastically small numbers in the GOP, even as women of color become increasingly prominent in the Democratic Party.

First, the link between party affiliation and social identity has strengthened in recent years. As political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck show in their book, party coalitions have been increasingly driven by racial and ethnic identity since 2008. The two major parties cater to fundamentally different identities: The Democratic Party represents a coalition of racial, religious and sexual minority groups; while the GOP represents social majorities like whites and Christians.

This means that the pool of potential women of color candidates is relatively smaller for Republicans than for Democrats. But it also means these candidates may have a harder time winning elections than Democratic women of color, as I’ll explain below.

The demographic difference between the two parties affects what voters want and how candidates campaign for office. Research by political scientists Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins shows that Democrats tend to cater to the specific policy concerns of diverse groups of voters, while Republicans tend to emphasize broad, ideological principles like American exceptionalism or the American Dream.

This can give Democratic women of color an advantage, as their identities help them connect to women and specific racial and ethnic groups, as well as a more liberal Democratic base. Research by political scientists Wendy Smooth and Christina Bejarano also shows that women of color can benefit from their identities by acquiring campaign resources from both gender-based and race-based organizations, rather than one or the other.

But these advantages are not seen on the Republican side, as women of color must gain support from a majority-white base and work harder than Republican men to demonstrate their conservative credentials. The GOP’s aversion to “identity politics” that promotes women and minorities also means that gender- and race-based organizations aren’t as effective on the right, as they attract fewer Republican donors and are thus unable to adequately support candidates.

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Mia Love upheld the GOP’s racial narratives — until she didn’t

In recently published research, I explored how former congresswoman Mia Love, the first (and still only) black Republican woman elected to Congress, navigated these electoral challenges during her 2014 campaign. I specifically wanted to know she presented herself to voters in Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

To do this, I examined Love’s website, social media posts, and online videos and advertisements from May 18, 2013, through Nov. 4, 2014. Of the total 1,121 posts I collected, a total of 163, or 14.5 percent, referred to either her race or gender — what I call racial and gender identity claims. I then conducted a qualitative content analysis that entailed rereading each claim to inductively uncover patterns in rhetoric.

Despite challenging what a typical Republican looks like, Love presented herself in ways that aligned with the gender and racial narratives of the party’s base. For example, Love frequently talked about her experiences as a mother, a wife and the daughter of Haitian immigrants.

She also contrasted herself with black liberals and emphasized conservative principles. In an Aug. 28, 2013, Facebook post celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, she wrote, “I do not believe Dr. King was asking for a handout. … He wanted us to be able to live and pursue our dreams free from government oppression.”

Love had been considered by many to be a rising star in GOP politics. Yet after serving only two terms in Congress, she lost her seat in 2018 to Democratic challenger Ben McAdams. My data does not provide a comprehensive comparison of all Love’s elections and can’t determine what caused her defeat. But it can reveal future challenges for Republican women of color in the Trump era.

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Love did not contest the party’s stances during her 2014 campaign and instead embraced its racial narratives. That became more complicated after 2016, as Trump engaged in more explicitly racist rhetoric.

For instance, after Trump referred to Haiti and countries in Africa as “shithole countries,” Love demanded an apology while also stressing that her Haitian immigrant parents “never took a thing from our federal government” and “rose from nothing … to provide opportunities for their children.”

That pivot reveals the tension she faced between condemning racist rhetoric and emphasizing a conservative immigrant uplift narrative. Candidates must navigate this tension in the Trump era: How do women of color present themselves to white Republican voters who are increasingly motivated by racial resentment and anti-immigrant sentiments?

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In response to the New Faces ad, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Know that this wasn’t an ad for young conservatives of color - that was the pretense. What you just watched was a love letter to the GOP’s white supremacist case.” Like Love’s more subtle approach in 2014, Heng’s ad adopts the current racial narratives of Trump’s base.

The question is whether this approach will help New Faces attract Republican donors and significant numbers of minority candidates.

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Catherine Wineinger (@cnwineinger) is an assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University and an APSA (American Political Science Association) congressional fellow.