Minority GOP Candidates Make A Pitch For November

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The longstanding ridicule that the Republican Party faced for its lack of racial diversity is waning as a number of non-white GOP candidates cannot be taken for granted in the midterm elections. They include a Vietnamese assemblyman in California running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Cuban-American in Florida running for a seat in the Senate, and an Indian-American legislator in South Carolina vying for governor. Host Michel Martin speaks with Ron Christie, a Republican political strategist, and Amy Holmes, a conservative commentator.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Over the next two days, we are going to talk about how the Grand Old Party is evolving. Tomorrow, we will talk about how women candidates are ascending in the Republican Party.

Today, we are talking about how minority candidates are expected to make strong showings on November 2nd. Since the Nixon era, the GOP has been derided by critics as being, well, too white and as exclusively going after white voters, not inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities. But nearly a hundred minority Republicans could make their mark in state and federal races come this November 2nd.

They include those who've held elective office and those who haven't. We're talking about people like Van Tran, a Vietnamese state assemblyman in California who's running for the U.S. House, Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, Florida, running for the U.S. Senate, Nikki Haley, an Indian-American vying for governor in South Carolina.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on Ron Christie. He's a Republican political strategist, and Amy Holmes, a conservative commentator and co-host of "America's Morning News." That's a nationally syndicated talk radio program.

Thank you for stepping out of your studio into mine.

Ms. AMY HOLMES (Co-Host, "America's Morning News"): It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: And thank you both for joining us.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Republican Political Strategist): Pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, Ron, I got to tell you, as a veteran of a number of Republican conventions going back over the years, and, you know, you could just visually look at who's selected to represent the party and see that it just has not been as diverse as its Democratic counterparts. I'd like to ask: This year does seem to be different. Is this a result of a deliberate recruiting effort, and by whom?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yes, I think so. I think, Michel, that the Republican Party has long stood for personal empowerment and trying to make people responsible for their individual choices and to be less intrusive when it comes to government interference. And I think that once you get past the label of 90 some-odd percent of the African-American community are Democrats and you appeal to people based on the issues, I think that appeals.

But the Republican Party, I'd say, in the last 10 years, has made a strong concerted effort with my former boss, President George W. Bush, to go into communities of color, to go in and listen. I mean, a lot of times, Republican politicians go in and they talk at people. Republicans, I think, in the last 10 years, have gone in and listened to the constituency and asked for their vote. And I think that's made a big difference, particularly heading into this election cycle.

MARTIN: But it's not a secret that African-Americans, those who were permitted to vote prior to the civil rights movement, had a strong disposition toward the Republican Party, and that changed in part because of policies and the tone of national Republican leaders. It was called the Southern Strategy.

So, Amy Holmes, I'd like to ask, is this effort to reach out to people of color specifically, has that occasioned a struggle within the national Republican Party? Or is it sort of an organic evolving of what was going on, anyway?

Ms. HOLMES: I've actually seen it be a cause for celebration among GOP establishment. We have - also, you have to remember, Michel, that these candidates are young. These are not candidates that were forged in the fires of the civil rights movement, as are there backers in the GOP. So you have Eric Cantor, who very aggressively courted Tim Scott in South Carolina because he was so impressed by him.

Karl Rove, he's held a fundraiser for a young man, Ryan Frazier, in Colorado. Michael Steele is getting behind these candidates - and to remember, the Republican Party nominated Michael Steele, an African-American, to lead them through this latest election cycle.

MARTIN: Well, let me just play a short clip of that, just to your point that GOP chair Michael Steele, of course, as an African-American, very high profile, was elected after a very intense campaign. He bested, I think, what, five or six candidates.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Mm-hmm. And that's under(ph) the ballot. Yeah.

MARTIN: Including the party - the incumbent Republican national chair who dropped out in one of the early ballots. And this is his - he addressed the issue of diversity from the beginning. This is a short clip of his acceptance speech in January of 2009. I'll just play a short clip.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): We're going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community.

MARTIN: So, Amy, how much of this is recruiting efforts by party leaders, and how much of this is simple demographics?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, it's a little bit of both. And let's also remember that Mr. Steele's predecessor, Ken Mehlman, he did a lot to lay the groundwork in going into African-American communities to spread the Republican message and, as Ron Christie said, to listen to - you know, to get feedback from the African-American community.

But in terms of demographics, as I mentioned, these are young candidates. Ryan Frazier, he's younger than me. He's only 33 years old, and he's running for the House.

MARTIN: You just had to rub that in.

Ms. HOLMES: I did.

Mr. CHRISTIE: She did.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOLMES: It was a little shocking. Kind of like when...

MARTIN: I'm just going to pat my crow's feet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOLMES: Right. When you find out that athletes and supermodels are half your age. So, yeah, these are young candidates that I think are being shaped by a different set of political forces and have a different message. And all of them have much deeper roots in politics and campaigning than their GOP black predecessors. This is not Alan Keyes parachuting into Illinois to run for United States Senate.

Allen West, he's run before. This is - he's running in Florida. He's also an Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq. Tim Scott, he is a sitting South Carolina House member. He has long been in South Carolina politics. So the party is both, you know, kind of getting to the party when it comes to GOP candidates. But also, these candidates have proven themselves to draw that support from the national level.

MARTIN: You know, Ron, it has been the case for some candidates who are of color who are running on the Republican side that they've have to face resistance within the communities from which they come, because the tagline -in fact, there was a D.C. race for mayor some years ago where a former police chief was running against the - on the Republican line, and the ad for the Democrat was: If he's for us, why is he with them?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Is that still an effective argument?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, no, I don't think that's an effective argument. I think that we have to look beyond the color of people's skin - in other words, just because you might happen to be a black candidate running for office, that you have to be from a majority African-American district. I think that what you found for some of the people that Amy has already mentioned, that you're finding candidates of color, African-Americans, who are appealing to people based on their ideology, based on their issues and based on their beliefs.

And I would question it even further and say: If we look from the 1960s at the billions of dollars that we have spent for the Great Society, for programs that have been designed to help bring people from out of the inner cities and to improve their lives and education, I say that, largely, that experiment's failed. And I think that there a number of people across the country who are looking to a new wave of leadership. And I think some of these young, African-American candidates are filling a void that has been vacant for 40 years.

MARTIN: We're not just talking about African-Americans. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're also talking about the swell of candidates of color: African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans who are running on the Republican side in the midterm elections, particularly for state and federal offices. The statewide offices and the federal offices are the ones that we're focusing on.

Let's talk about a couple other races, and just talk a little bit about the dynamics of the race. Susana Martinez, a district attorney in New Mexico, making a strong showing for governor. What are the strengths of her - what's her strength?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, I think that her knowledge of the issues. And...

MARTIN: She's running against another woman, by the way.

Ms. HOLMES: She is. So, however it goes, we'll have a female governor there. Her knowledge of the issues, again, her, you know, deep experience in that community and being able to speak to both communities, both the Latino community and the other, I should say, Caucasian community and other folks who will be voting for her.

But I'd like to point out that all of these people should be household names. And if they had a D behind them, I think they would be. I remember back in 1992...

MARTIN: Why do you think that?

Ms. HOLMES: I remember back in 1992, the year of the woman, and how Patty Murray, the mom in tennis shoes was a national darling and celebrity and she had worked in - I'm from Washington State, so I'm, you know, familiar with her. She had worked in the city school district pursuing education policy, and her holding up those tennis shoes was iconic. And that was considered, you know, a proper - what is the word I'm looking for?

Mr. CHRISTIE: It's almost like a badge of honor.

Ms. HOLMES: A badge of honor. And, yet, for some of these other candidates, we don't even know their names.

MARTIN: Okay, wait, who's the Democrat running against Susana Martinez?

Ms. HOLMES: That's a good question. I don't know her name.

MARTIN: Thank you. See, my point. That's my...

Ms. HOLMES: However...

Mr. CHRISTIE: I have to agree with Amy, though. I think her point is very well stated. I think that there is an inherent bias against conservative women running for federal office. I mean, all the stories coming about Christine O'Donnell are largely derisive. Nikki Haley is an American, really, story. You have an Indian-American woman running for governor of South Carolina. She's made it up from her bootstraps. She beat a very crowded field and a crowded primary.

MARTIN: Forgive me, weren't the stories derisive because of members of her own party attacking her? So...

Mr. CHRISTIE: No. Actually, it was a lot of the Democrats saying, oh, does she have marital infidelity problems? If you're going to look at people's personal lives, I would daresay that there are a lot of current office holders who have far more issues and all these allegations...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, but those issues arose in the primary.

Ms. HOLMES: But why are we more familiar with Christine O'Donnell - who appears to be behind by double digits - than we are with Tim Scott, who would be the first African-American representing South Carolina - sorry, Republican in the Congress since Reconstruction? I would think that Tim Scott should be getting a lot more headlines than a candidate who, you know, seems to be coasting her way to a loss.

MARTIN: Okay. What about Marco Rubio?

Ms. HOLMES: Marco Rubio - fast, he has gotten...

MARTIN: Getting a lot of attention.

Ms. HOLMES: He has gotten a lot of attention, and in his last debate, we just played on my radio show today, he was asked by his moderator why he seemed to hold anti-Latino views - anti-Latino policies. And he had to point out he is Latino, which was something that wasn't acknowledged. He went through his own personal history to remind his own moderator of exactly who he is and that he's pro-legal immigration. He's for border security and enforcement of the laws. And he pointed out every candidate is for enforcement of the laws.

MARTIN: Okay. And his strengths are what?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, he's a strong fiscal conservative. He had a very good tenureship as speaker of the House in Florida. And I think his story is truly inspirational, someone who'd come over, his parents wanted to make sure he had a better life, to escape the oppression in Cuba. He made it, again, rising up by his bootstraps and his intellect. And I think a lot of the coverage towards Marco Rubio has been negative. You hear he's out of the mainstream. He's too extreme. And I say: What about a fellow who made it from nothing to become speaker of the House who's running for the Senate in Florida?

MARTIN: Okay. But, unfortunately, we don't have time to really analyze this here. But, again, there's things that political opponents say and then there's what you call the coverage. There's also narratives that are pushed also by political opponents. And, you know, these are political campaigns.

Another inspiring personal story: Van Tran, a Vietnamese Republican running in California's 47th congressional district. He's currently serving as a Republican member of the State Assembly. And one more state I wanted to talk to you about - we only really have time, Amy - Isaac Hayes is - grew up on the south side of Chicago, running against Jesse Jackson, Jr. to represent Illinois' 2nd congressional district. Does he have a chance?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, Jesse Jackson, Jr., of course, comes from political royalty. He's been, you know, dragged into the issues concerning the former governor, Rod Blagojevich, and his own personal issues. So, you know, it's - I'm not going to predict that one. I would say that Jesse Jackson, Jr. has the edge, however.

MARTIN: It's an exciting time. Ron Christie, on November 3rd, which of these races do you think we'll be talking about? Which do you want us to be talking about, since you have criticisms about the coverage?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think that...

MARTIN: Pick one.

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think one of the more inspirational races that conservatives are going to be watching is Marco Rubio. I think he has a very strong national future. And particularly, if he prevails in the Senate contest, I think he's going to be on somebody's short list to become vice president sooner rather than later.

MARTIN: All right. Ron Christie is a Republican political strategist and author of "Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur." Amy Holmes is a conservative commentator and co-host of "America's Morning News," a nationally syndicated talk radio program. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much.

Ms. HOLMES: Thank you.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Thank you.

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