Minority GOP Candidates Win Big On Election Day

Republicans seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives in midterm elections in convincing fashion, promising to confront President Barack Obama with a conservative agenda to cut government and spur private-sector jobs. All 435 seats in the House were on the ballot, plus 37 in the U.S. Senate, and an additional 37 governors' races. Host Michel Martin speaks with Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Mary Kate Cary, speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush; and Rochelle Riley, columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin coming to you from member station WDET in Detroit.

And it's no surprise that we will want to talk about the midterm elections. They will certainly go down as historic. And one of the themes of this year's vote was the emergence of candidates of color running on the Republican ticket. We're going to focus on that theme in the first part of our conversation about last night's results.

And to help make sense of it all, I'm joined by three seasoned political observers. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They are joining us from our studios in Washington. And here with me in Detroit is Detroit Free Press columnist and author Rochelle Riley. Welcome to all of you. Thank you so much for joining us after a late night.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist and Blogger, U.S. News and World Report): Thank you.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Journalist, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Good to be here.

Ms. ROCHELLE RILEY (Columnist, Detroit Free Press): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, of course one of the themes of the elections, I think, is the success of Republicans in states and in districts that President Obama had won just two years ago. Florida is one of those places. And, of course, there's that very interesting three-way Senate race featuring Democrat Kendrick Meek, an African-American, independent Charlie Crist, the sitting governor, and the man who would emerge the victor, Republican Marco Rubio. Rubio is Cuban-American, of Cuban-American heritage. I just want to play a short clip of his victory speech last night.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator MARCO RUBIO (Republican, Florida): I've been raised in a community of exiles, a community of men and women that were once my age. And when they were, they had dreams like we have now. And yet they lost all those things and so they came here to try to rebuild their lives. And some did. But many others could not. And instead it became the purpose of their life to leave their children with the opportunities they themselves did not have.

This is the story of the Cuban exile community and it defines what so many of us who are a product of it are. And I know this, no matter where I go, I will always be the son of exiles.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: So, Mary Kate, we'll start with you, since Republicans were the big winners last night. Compelling biography that, you know, that Marco Rubio presented, to what do you attribute this Republican triumph? I mean taking over the House of Representatives, narrowing the Democratic margin in the Senate. Is it the success of recruiting, compelling candidates like Marco Rubio or something else?

Ms. CARY: I think overwhelmingly it's a reaction to the Obama agenda and the problems in the economy. Having great candidates like Marco Rubio definitely helped. You know, he came into that race 30 points down as a Washington outsider and won last night by a 20 point margin, which is pretty steep.

He - if you heard other parts of his speech last night, he talks about American exceptionalism and knowing what it's like to lose one's country as the sons of exiles. And what it's like to have to rebuild your life from scratch and want your children to have a better life than you had.

And I think that had tremendous resonance with people from all walks of life and it fed into this limited government and fiscal restraint message on the economy that worked across the board, because that's the way to build a better life for our children is to let the free enterprise system do what it does best.

So when you saw Marco Rubio last night, you also saw Nikki Haley, the first woman ever elected in South Carolina, which is a state not known for electing women very much. And she is the first Indian-American elected there. Susana Martinez...

MARTIN: And she's also the first Indian-American woman to lead a state in this country. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, of course, the first person of Indian heritage to be elected to the governor's office. And also, it is worth noting, as you pointed out, that South Carolina had at that point the lowest percentage of women elected officials in the country.

Ms. CARY: Right. And then you see over in New Mexico, Susana Martinez won again - first Latina governor of either party in New Mexico. And then other places around the country, Tim Scott and Allen West, GOP congressmen elected in South Carolina and Florida, respectively. Both first blacks voted into Congress as Republicans since Reconstruction. In Texas you had Bill Flores.

MARTIN: No, that's not true, Gary Franks was a Republican of Connecticut. You're saying from the South.

Ms. CARY: Oh, no, I meant in those states.

MARTIN: In those states.

Ms. CARY: In those states, right. But Bill Flores and Jaime Herrera also in Texas and Washington state. Herrera also a first Latina congressman from Washington state. So it was across the board that so many of these minority candidates made historic gains last night for Republicans.

But I do think the bottom line is they weren't elected so much because of their color or their heritage. I think a lot of it had to do with fiscal restraint and the economy and, you know, this overwhelming desire to right the country back on the right track.

MARTIN: Cynthia, let's bring you into the conversation. I mean it is - this is also a changed election. 2008 was a changed election and this one has been too. What do you think is the issue here?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I do think that it is - Mary Kate is right when she says that these candidates were not elected because of their color. They were elected irrespective of color and that's the big change here.

You know, after President Obama became the first black president on the Democratic ticket, I think Republicans were forced to take another look at their party and its dismal failure to promote more black and brown candidates. So they started by putting - voting in Michael Steele as head of the Republican National Committee.

But they also recruited candidates around the country. And it paid off for them in some places. Now, having said that, there will still just be two black Republicans in Congress. And so, this is not a huge watershed event. It is significant since one's from South Carolina and one's from Florida. And we have not had black Republicans from those states since Reconstruction.

But the Republican Party still has a way to go in terms of recruiting and electing candidates of color. But certainly this is a huge step in the right direction for the Republican Party.

MARTIN: But it also is interesting, Cynthia, then I'm going to bring Rochelle into the conversation, it's interesting that there will be no African-Americans in the Senate. The Senate seat held by Barack Obama in Illinois has gone Republican, and Roland Burris who had agreed not to run for a full term, was the sole serving African-American in the Senate and he will now be gone.

Rochelle Riley, I want to turn to you. A bad day for Democrats in Michigan. The - a sweep at the top of the ticket. The governor office went to Republican Jennifer Granholm, the incumbent. You may have heard our conversation with her yesterday on this program. She was term limited and couldn't run again. But her approval ratings were in the 30s. She said they were low enough that she stopped actually taking note of them. The attorney general, the secretary of state and most noteworthy, perhaps, is that the House, the Lower House of the state legislature, which was overwhelmingly Democratic, has now become overwhelmingly Republican.

So the question I have for you is, is this a repudiation of President Obama's decision to push hard on controversial legislation like health care reform, like the economic stimulus spending? Or is it a vindication of it because the circumstances are so difficult that the Democrats were going to lose seats anyway?

Ms. RILEY: Well, in Michigan, everything is local, local, local. And for a lot of voters, it was a dissatisfaction with the outgoing governor. And they were ready to vote for somebody else no matter what. And you can tell just how interesting the race became when people were willing to elect a stranger, someone who has never served elective office, someone who has no real experience in politics.

But he used the word reinvention and people need that here so much, where we consistently have had the highest rate of unemployment and the greatest concerns with the changes in the auto industry. And while they're rebounding, our economy is still abysmal. So they want something different. And right now, different in Michigan means Republican.

MARTIN: How relevant do you think it is, though, the changes in the - the point that Cynthia made and Mary Kate was also making about the fact that the exciting new faces who are of color are on the Republican side? How relevant do you think that that is?

Ms. RILEY: It's not just exciting new faces, but exciting ideas. Back in the August primary, so many Democrats voted for Republicans that some Republicans in the party thought that they were doing it as subterfuge or to try to pick a candidate that they wanted to have less trouble with.

But, actually, there were lots of people I talked to who were moderate Democrats and black Republicans who said they voted for him because of new ideas and a need for Michigan to be different.

So, if the Republicans can continue to recruit potential candidates, as Cynthia said, or to keep this idea of being different going along, we could eventually see a new reconstruction and see more politicians who are of color in the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm coming to you from Detroit. I'm speaking with Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press, Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. We're talking about the results from yesterday's midterm elections. We're taking a particularly close look at the candidates of color and the impact that they will have on the political landscape. We need to take a short break in a just a minute. We're going to continue with these guests.

But before we do, Rochelle, I wanted to ask about a column you wrote last week. You said that candidate Obama ran the first election-focused national/social network now is being out-messaged, out-hyped and out-maneuvered by a Republican Party machine that has declared him a failure when he hasn't actually failed in anything yet except communication. So, is this a matter of ideas or is this a matter of skill at getting a message out?

Ms. RILEY: It is stunning to see someone who was so skilled during the campaign to have so little effect as the president and a lot of that is communication. He has some of the right ideas, yet the Republican Party and the Tea Party were able to steal his message, channel a whole different look at the health care reform effort and he is floundering.

And administration officials, when I was at the White House two weeks ago said, well, we can't get our message out. Well, if you're the most powerful people in the world and you can't get a message out, that's a problem.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I'm going to give you - we have a couple of minutes left here - maybe actually just a half a minute left here, what about you? Is it policy or it is communicating effectively?

Ms. CARY: Yeah. I think - I saw a great quote from Robert Gibbs where he said, I have yet to be in a meeting where someone said we don't have a communications problem, we have a policy problem. And I think the problem is they're trying to communicate policies that are not connecting with the electorate.

As we've been saying for the last year or so, it's all jobs, jobs, jobs. And yet the White House is talking cap and trade, health care reform, all these other sort of sideshows. And I think that's the message of this election, get back to jobs.

Ms. TUCKER: Michel, before we leave, though...

MARTIN: We need to take a short - Cynthia, we need to take a short break. But we're going to come right back with Cynthia Tucker, Mary Kate Cary, Rochelle Riley.

This is Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, coming to you from Detroit. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin here in the studios of member station WDET in Detroit. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we are going to pivot to one of our favorite topics: education. Here in Detroit the public schools have been seeing dramatic movement since Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bob to try to turn things around. He has staunch allies, some harsh critics, and we are going to visit with him again as he completes his assignment this March.

But first, though, we are continuing our conversation pinpointing specific races and talking about these historic midterm elections. And we're speaking with Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press columnist here with me in Detroit at WDET. And with us from Washington, Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

And I want to talk again about the Midwest and what happened in the Midwest. Russ Feingold in Michigan, a highly - well thought of in Washington senator -thought of as an independent mind, lost his seat. And in Ohio, a bellwether state, Ted Strickland, the incumbent governor there. Somebody who had successfully run as a congressman in swing districts before, lost his seat to John Kasich. And Rochelle Riley, what do you think that that says?

Ms. RILEY: Well, there are two things that are beating around the corner. And the first is that the Democratic Party did not really look to get many votes in Michigan, did not do much here. I had a conversation with Tim Kaine and said, what are you going to spend in Michigan and who's going to be coming here? And he said, I'll have to get back to you. Although he could recite what was being done in Florida and Pennsylvania. So I think that they either thought that they would do okay or just wrote it off.

But the other thing is policy. When you're talking about Michigan, including Detroit, where unemployment is so high that we're literally talking about hitting the depression here before any place else, it is about jobs and it is about trying to find a way to make that work while you make other things work.

MARTIN: So, Cynthia, would you pick up on that point - the point that we were talking about right before we took our break. Is this a matter of policies or is this a matter of communicating those policies effectively? And if you'd also take on that question of whether you think that the president was right to push hard on legislation that was unpopular, like, in some sectors like health care and some of the stimulus package. Or, you know, knowing that it was likely that the Democrats would sustain losses in the midterm elections. Or did he push too hard too fast?

Ms. TUCKER: I certainly don't think he pushed too hard too fast. After all, he campaigned on health care reform. And when he started right after he was inaugurated, health care reform was still a popular issue. By the time it finally passed, it was much less popular in part because I think it was mischaracterized. But in part because people believed that the administration had taken its eye off the economy. And that's the issue that overwhelmingly got people out to the polls during this election.

But Rochelle earlier mentioned how the auto industry in Michigan is just now beginning to turn around just a bit. Well, some of that is due to the bailout of the auto industry by the Obama administration. Right policy, but bailouts have been extremely unpopular with the voters.

And so, it's ironic that that bailout helped save some jobs in Michigan, yet Democrats were punished when it didn't do enough to turn the economy around in Michigan. So I think it's both. I think it's policies that haven't done enough to restore the economy, but also a huge communications problem.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, in the couple of minutes that we have left, I want to ask you, how then, going forward, does President Obama relate to this Congress? And how then do the Republicans who now have a governing majority in the House and also in so many statehouses around the country, how do they then relate to these communities of color who are so supportive of President Obama in 2008 and presumably in 2012 might be again? How do you think - look ahead over the next two years, what do you see?

Ms. CARY: It seems to me the way forward for both sides is for each one to reach out to the other. President Obama is going to have to do some rebuilding of his coalition. Meaning, he's going to have to start reaching out to business and to some of the Republicans on the Hill. I saw a statistic the other day that said in the first 18 months of the administration, he did not meet with Senator McConnell once, face to face. And I think most people find that pretty shocking.

So they're going to have to come together, work together to bring some certainty to the business community, which will in turn lead to more jobs, investment. You know, if they can put in place some good tax incentives, put a moratorium on new regulations for the next couple years, maybe cut spending across the board, I think that would help create more jobs in the private sector, bring some certainty.

This morning the stock market was already up on the news, and I think that's good for everybody. If they can keep that going, that's where I see things heading the next two years is rebuild the coalition and more of an emphasis on business.

MARTIN: What about the other side of it, Rochelle Riley? What about Republicans now have more responsibility to reach out to communities of color?

Ms. RILEY: Well, they're going to have to not assume that all is rosy now that they had a good day. I think there has to be, as Mary Kate said, reach out on both sides. And there also has to be an acknowledgement of when things are going well.

As the president said a couple weeks ago, there's been nine straight months of economic growth while he's been trying to turn the economy around. You can't create jobs out of old cloth and keep everything else at bay. But you do have to make sure people understand that things are changing.

MARTIN: Why do they have to? Why do they have to acknowledge when things are going well if the results speak for themselves? From the standpoint of the election results, it seems that their strategy worked very well.

Ms. RILEY: These are people who want a different economy. If they're not able to do any more than the president did, it's only going to last a little while. We're now in the honeymoon period and now they better bring it.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker, final word from you?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I agree with Rochelle completely. I think that something is going to have to change in the next two years. There has to be a better economy. There has to be some performance by the Republicans, or there will be another wave election in two years.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and a columnist for U.S. News and World Report. They were with us from our studios in Washington, D.C. And here with me in Detroit, Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press. She was here with me at our member station WDET. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. CARY: Thank you.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

Ms. RILEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Get some rest.

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, that's good.

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