With two Hispanic senators, a retired African American neurosurgeon and, soon, an Indian American governor from the South, the Republican primary field offers voters the most diverse pool of candidates in memory.
Still, the GOP probably will continue to struggle to attract a significant number of minority voters, who will be key to the outcome of next year’s election.
Despite the racial and ethnic diversity of the candidates, their records and rhetoric on some important issues are largely at odds with minority voters.
The GOP field also includes former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who in a recent speech suggested she was a conservative feminist alternative to Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although the GOP candidate won the white women’s votes in the past two presidential elections, Obama ran up huge margins among women of color, which accounted for the double-digit gender gap between the parties.
In seeking to win the votes of the overwhelmingly white and conservative voters who make up the GOP primary electorate, Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), both of Cuban descent; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is African American; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is Indian American, probably won’t be much help to the GOP’s effort to close the gap with communities of color after losing badly among black, Hispanic and Asian American voters in the last presidential election. Jindal hasn’t officially entered the race but is expected to do so soon.
Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said attracting minority candidates is not the party’s problem when it comes to black voters.
“The split with the black community was not because there were no black candidates; the black community felt the Republican Party walked away from the black agenda in the 1960s,” Steele said.
Historically, black voters had allied themselves with the Republican Party because it, led by President Abraham Lincoln, pushed to end slavery. But that changed with the Democratic Party’s New Deal programs and an ideological shift from moderate to conservative leaders in the Republican Party in the early 1960s.
In his 2012 reelection, Obama claimed 80 percent of nonwhite voters, including 93 percent of the black vote. Many voters of color differ with GOP candidates on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and raising the federal minimum wage.
The GOP is also still struggling with a long-standing perception that it is insensitive toward racial minorities, a struggle on display in the past few days as some Republican candidates either tried to avoid discussing race in response to the shooting deaths of nine black worshipers, allegedly at the hands of a young white man in Charleston, S.C., or came across as awkward when they did discuss it.
“What is the party’s response to a community that’s hurting?” said Steele, who said the party also has not been outspoken enough in the ongoing debate over several deaths of unarmed black males. “I think that’s what, more than anything else, would begin to break the ice that still exists out there.”
In the hours after the South Carolina shootings, the candidates responded with messages of condolence and outrage. But, except for Carson, who in a Facebook message acknowledged that “racial based hate is still very much alive as last night so violently reminded us,” some of the candidates avoided citing racism as a motive for the killings, even though the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, is said to have acknowledged as much as he gunned down nine black people attending Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Most of the candidates attended the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, which opened Thursday, where almost all of them mentioned the tragedy, either in their remarks to the group or with reporters in the hallways.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush came in for harsh criticism on social media for telling a reporter “I don’t know” when asked whether racism was a factor in the slayings. But later, he, along with Rubio and Cruz, were describing the attack as “racist.” Cruz and Fiorina criticized Democrats for using the tragedy to raise the issues of race, gun control and the state-
sanctioned flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.
On Saturday afternoon, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, tweeted: “Take down the #Confederate Flag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.” In response, some of the candidates expressed their personal discomfort with the flag but said the decision should be left up to the people of South Carolina — a states-rights argument that recalls the era when Southern states, chafing at federal anti-
discrimination laws, asserted the right to govern themselves.
“That’s an issue for the people of South Carolina,” Mike Huckabee, the GOP presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Republican Party has worked to recruit diverse candidates and to train minorities to run campaigns, especially focusing on organizing get-out-the-vote activities. And individual candidates have made overtures to diverse communities; Rubio and Bush have specifically targeted Hispanic groups, where they often converse with potential voters in Spanish.
Carson, who used to practice at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, returned to that city last month after unrest erupted following the death of an unarmed black man who was fatally injured in police custody. And for the past few years, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has visited historically black colleges and met with inner-city community leaders around the country to talk about racial disparity in the criminal justice system.
Still, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in May showed that so far none of the GOP candidates were registering with minority voters.
Amir Shawn Fairdosi, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, co-wrote a study this year that found that a push to put black Republican candidates on ballots for 2010 congressional races neither increased turnout nor yielded more black votes for the GOP.
The study was cited by several conservative columnists as evidence that the GOP should give up on trying to win over black voters. Fairdosi, who did the study along with Jon Rogowski, a political science professor at Washington University, said that wasn’t the point of the paper.
“The thrust of the paper isn’t that the Republican Party can’t attract black voters, but you just can’t throw a black candidate out there,” Fairdosi said. “Voters are going to vote for the candidates that will do what’s best for them.
“Democrats start off with a platform more appealing to black voters than Republicans,” he said.
And, increasingly, with Hispanic voters as well.
Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions, which does polling and research on the Latino electorate, said Rubio and Cruz would have a lot of ground to make up with Hispanic voters.
In a Latino Decisions poll in November, 31 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Rubio. Cruz had a lower favorable rating at 25 percent. Larger percentages of Hispanic voters had no opinion of the two — 40 percent for Rubio and 55 percent for Cruz — but their records suggest they’d have a hard time winning Latinos’ support.
Rubio and Cruz have called for repealing Obama’s executive action on immigration. “Over 90 percent of Hispanics think [the president’s move is] a good thing,” Manzano said. “That includes over 70 percent of Republican Hispanics.”
They have similarly vowed to take on the Affordable Care Act, another initiative that has been popular with Hispanics.
“For them to come and say, ‘I’ve been your champion’ is really hard because there’s not a record or policy accomplishments to point to,” Manzano said. “The things they are well known for are things most Latinos don’t agree with.”
Tara Wall, a consultant with the Republican National Committee, said it was too early to predict what minority voters will do in next year’s election. She noted that in the 2014 midterms, some GOP candidates garnered a higher-than-usual percentage of the black vote, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who boasted 26 percent of the black vote in his reelection bid.
“The party has long recognized that we have to do better and we will do better with minorities,” Wall said.