Racial Woes: GOP Fails To Recruit Minorities

Just a few years after the Republican Party launched a highly publicized diversity effort, the GOP is heading into the 2008 election without a single minority candidate with a plausible chance of winning a campaign for the House, the Senate or governor.

At a time when Democrats are poised to knock down a historic racial barrier with their presidential nominee, the GOP is fielding only a handful of minority candidates for Congress or statehouses -- none of whom seem to have a prayer of victory.

At the start of the Bush years, the Republican National Committee -- in tandem with the White House -- vowed to usher in a new era of GOP minority outreach. As George W. Bush winds down his presidency, Republicans are now on the verge of going six -- and probably more -- years without an African-American governor, senator or House member.

That's the longest such streak since the 1980s.

Republicans will have only one minority governor, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, an Indian-American, when the dust settles on the '08 elections. Democrats have three minority governors and 43 African-American members of Congress, including one -- Illinois Sen. Barack Obama -- who is their likely presidential nominee. Democrats also have several challengers in winnable House races who are either black or Hispanic.


Despite having a Spanish-speaking "compassionate conservative" in the White House, Republicans' diversity deficit seems to have only widened.

"In 1994, when I first ran, we had 14 African-American Republicans running for Congress. ... I was the only one that won that year, but we had 14, and we had some good candidates," said former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, one of the party's most recognized African-American voices. "I am grateful for what Ken Mehlman did when he was RNC chairman, but I knew that wouldn't last -- that was one person. I've never gotten the impression that it was institutionalized."

So who's to blame for this diversity deficit?

Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman and vice presidential nominee, says the culprit is clear: a "pitiful" recruitment effort by his party. "I don't see much of an outreach," he said. "I don't see much of a reason to run."

A former black GOP candidate who declined to be identified by name offered a slightly more charitable explanation. He said the party is so broke and distracted that wooing strong minority candidates is a luxury it simply cannot afford right now.

Congressional staffers contacted for reaction on this issue did not want to comment but were clearly uneasy with the party's all-white slate of viable candidates.

In all fairness, Republicans have never been very good at attracting strong minority candidates, especially African-Americans. Only four black Republicans -- Watts, former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, former Connecticut Rep. Gary Franks and the late Illinois Rep. Oscar Stanton De Priest -- have been elected to Congress since Reconstruction.

The party has done slightly better with Cuban-Americans and Hispanics in recent years -- Cuban-American Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida recently served as RNC chairman. But the GOP remains a white-dominated party elected overwhelmingly by white voters.

Another mitigating factor for the party is that this has been a terrible year overall for GOP recruitment, as exemplified in the 0-for-3 Republican streak in special elections in recent weeks. The dilemma is simple: Who wants to run when the Republican brand is so unpopular and money is so scarce?

Still, the recruitment failure is striking when you consider the recent history of the GOP on this issue. It was not long ago -- 2005 to be precise -- that Mehlman, then the RNC chairman, grabbed headlines with a major speech on diversity before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Republicans are committed to inclusion," he told the group's national convention. "I'm here four years before the next presidential elction asking for your help. Inclusion means you work together to recruit candidates, not surrogates to speak on their behalf."

Mehlman was far from alone. President Bush dedicated significant time in the early years of his presidency to reaching out to African-Americans with countless speeches on education and faith-based initiatives directed at minority communities. He aggressively appointed prominent blacks to his Cabinet, including two secretaries of state: Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Bush sometimes broke into Spanish as he called for immigration laws providing illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, a hot topic in Hispanic communities.

The efforts, of course, were designed to attract voters -- not just candidates -- into the GOP fold. And the moral of the story is that the party clearly failed.

Some party insiders point to 2006 as the specific proof that diversity efforts may sound great but are still impractical and electorally unrewarding for the GOP.

During that cycle, Mehlman and GOP leaders talked a number of attractive black candidates into running for important seats: Michael Steele of Maryland for the Senate; Lynn Swann of Pennsylvania; and Ken Blackwell of Ohio, for governor.

Scores of stories were written about the Republicans' new plan to win tough seats with well-funded minority candidates.

Then they all lost badly. The election results in their respective states showed that hardly made any inroads -- even in the heavily African-American parts of the states they were running in. Swann was later asked to run for the House, and he declined.

Suddenly, the argument for minority outreach seemed to lack the underpinning of any successful political strategy: the ability to produce more votes.

The exit polling data for House races in 2006 showed the depth of GOP's outreach crisis. Republican candidates won 11 percent of the black vote and 30 percent of Hispanic vote.

However, Watts, for one, rejects the argument that Republicans can't compete for minority votes or successfully recruit minority candidates. He argues that the party simply hasn't tried hard enough.

"Unless you have an infrastructure to build off of, it's all throwing mud at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks," said Watts. "There's an entire infrastructure that needs to be thought through, and it seems to me no one is interested in building that."
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