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Courting minorities A GOP challenge

By W. James Antle III
web posted July 8, 2002

The media didn't pay much attention when J.C. Watts was elected chairman of the House Republican Conference, the highest position ever held by an African-American congressman. But when he announced last week that he would not be standing for reelection this November, there was a great deal of press coverage.

J.C. Watts
Watts

Howard Fineman wrote an article detailing Watts' frustrations with the GOP. Journalists asked what the loss of the only black Republican in Congress said about the party. As Timothy Carney noted in National Review On-Line, the headline "Congress's Only Black Republican Will Quit" adorned the front page of The New York Times, the same paper that's profile of Watts didn't appear until page 31 back when he joined the GOP leadership in 1998. The implication, of course, was that Watts is leaving Congress because Republicans are racist.

Such irresponsible charges are leveled with an irritating frequency. Think back to the most recent election campaigns, where it was suggested that Republicans approved of black church burnings and Al Gore himself made a connection between George W. Bush's stated preference for strict constructionists in the federal judiciary and slavery. The media doesn't say much about the black Republican lieutenant governor of Colorado or the black Republican candidates for lieutenant governor in Ohio and Maryland, though you can bet you would hear a lot about them if they left politics in frustration. But Watts' departure does highlight two problems: Conservatives are increasingly losing effective leaders and there is a lack of minority involvement in the GOP.

After all, if an African-American Democrat retired, it might well be news - if that Democrat was a veteran like Charlie Rangel or a controversial figure like Maxine Waters - but their departures would not make the Democratic caucus lily-white. Democrats have a diverse following and a near lock on minority voters. Can Republicans pick it?

So far, they have not found a particularly effective way of doing so. There are some isolated examples of Republicans winning minority support, but overall coordinated attempts to broaden the GOP base have been non-starters. Bret Schundler carried the Hispanic vote and was competitive among black voters when he ran in nonpartisan races for mayor of Jersey City. On the ballot statewide with the Republican designation next to his name, Schundler trailed Jim McGreevey badly among both groups of voters. Jack Kemp has invested years in minority outreach. When he was on the Republican presidential ticket with Bob Dole, a man with a lengthy record of support for civil rights legislation, the GOP won just 12 percent of the black vote and 21 percent of the Hispanic vote. Alan Keyes was unable to rally African-Americans in either of his Maryland Senate bids.

Perhaps the best example is Dubya himself. One of the reasons Bush was touted as the man to lead the GOP into the 21st century was his ability to win minority support with an inclusive compassionate conservative message. In 1998, Bush was reelected to the Texas governorship with 25 percent of the black vote and 49 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2000, Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote (well behind his Texas totals and not as well as Ronald Reagan did in 1984, but an improvement from the 1996 GOP showing) and just 9 percent of the black vote. Only 5 percent of black Texans voted for Bush in the presidential election. Although strong Cuban-American support helped put him over the top in Florida (Cuban-Americans, particularly Florida's conservative and anti-communist exile community, are a predominantly Republican subset of Hispanic voters), 92 percent of his votes came from non-Hispanic whites. Gore crushed him 77 percent to 21 percent among minority voters.

Colin Powell once observed that the GOP isn't perceived as "the black guy's party." Most other minority groups appear to feel similarly ill at ease within the party of Lincoln. Even Asians, who voted Republican in the 1992 presidential race by a larger percentage than any group except evangelical Christians, are shifting toward the Democrats. George Bush won 55 percent of Americans of Asian descent in 1992, while his son won just 41 percent eight years later.

What can be done about this? There appear to be two schools of thought on what Republicans can do to rectify this situation. The most popular one is to cease being Republicans. This would entail adopting Democratic positions on affirmative action, bilingualism, multicultural education, immigration (particularly amnesties for illegal immigrants) and perhaps even social spending and moving to their left wherever possible. The problem with this strategy - aside from small matters like principles - is that the presumption is always in favor of the Democrats on these issues. To counter this would require a lengthy, concerted effort to promote these initiatives as central to the party that would consistently meet or exceed the inevitable Democratic attempts to take them back. This can only be done at the expense of virtually the entire conservative base that currently makes up the GOP.

The second school of thought is to present an activist conservative agenda as something beneficial to minorities. Liberals have trapped minority children in failed government schools and refuse to allow them to escape. In these government schools, many children receive bilingual education that interferes with their ability to learn English. The creation of jobs and wealth among minorities can be encouraged through capital gains tax cuts, Social Security privatization, estate tax relief and enterprise zones. Tax-free enterprise zones and tenant ownership of public housing are policies that can be promoted as solutions for the urban poor.

I was once a fervent exponent of this school of thought. Experience, however, has not been kind to it. Other than school vouchers, none of these issues seem to have much resonance among minority voters. There has finally emerged a younger generation of minority political leaders willing to resist their older counterparts and the teachers' unions in fighting for school choice - mainly, from within the Democratic Party. Advocacy of vouchers has gained Republicans little support from minority voters, but has alienated other voters who already have the economic means to effectively exercise school choice. There are a few bright spots where you can find GOP candidates who took this approach and did better than usual among minority voters, but it has produced no clear advantages in general.

Steve Sailer has persuasively argued that minority outreach is overrated and the GOP would be better served by trying to maximize its share of the white vote. According to his estimates, if Bush had increased his share of the white vote from 54 percent to 57 percent he would have won an Electoral College landslide of 367 to 171. Sailer calculated that even if in the process of gaining three extra percentage points among whites he managed to alienate some of his minority supporters, dropping his share of their vote from 21 percent to 13 percent, he still would have won 310 to 228.

The Republican surge in the once-Solid (for the Democrats) South shows that this can be done. Even though Southern states have higher percentages of black voters than other states and these voters have remained overwhelmingly Democratic, Republicans have still been able to win elections there (Bush won every Southern state, including Clinton's Arkansas and Gore's Tennessee despite losing 90 percent of the black vote nationwide) because they win a higher share of the white vote than they do elsewhere. Of course, this assumes that whites in the Northeast and elsewhere can be encouraged to vote like the more culturally conservative whites of the South and the Great Plains states. Remember that Ralph Nader's supporters are almost as overwhelmingly white as any conservative activist's.

But broadening the Republican Party and preserving its base are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In a multiracial society, an effective major political party must work for a multiracial appeal. The message of family, community and individual empowerment conveyed by the GOP at its best is a message for all Americans. The party's challenge remains finding the messenger and the medium.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Judged by the content of their message by Steven Martinovich (August 7, 2000)
    The minorities you saw on television during the convention don't reflect the actual make-up of the Republican Party, but Steve Martinovich says the party is improving. There is still yet more work to do though
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