GOP Hopes Increased Diversity Attracts New Voters

Tim Scott i i

hide captionRepublican Tim Scott celebrates his victory in a South Carolina House race at an election night party. Scott is the first African-American Republican elected to Congress from the state since Reconstruction.

Alice Keeney/AP
Tim Scott

Republican Tim Scott celebrates his victory in a South Carolina House race at an election night party. Scott is the first African-American Republican elected to Congress from the state since Reconstruction.

Alice Keeney/AP

After the 2008 election, the Republican Party made a concerted effort to recruit more diverse candidates. From the results of this year's midterm elections, it appears to have paid off.

Marco Rubio i i

hide captionFlorida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, holds a news conference the day after defeating Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek to retain the seat for the GOP.

Jeffrey Boan/AP
Marco Rubio

Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, holds a news conference the day after defeating Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek to retain the seat for the GOP.

Jeffrey Boan/AP

Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, of Cuban descent, is among the record number of Latino Republicans headed to Capitol Hill.

The day after the election, he had some logistics to work through.

"Here's what I'll do to make it easier for everybody. I'll answer the Spanish questions in English and Spanish," Rubio told reporters after he was asked a question about the Tea Party in Spanish.

As Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, puts it: "This was a good year to be a Republican Hispanic candidate."

Bridging The Gap

Vargas cites big wins for Hispanic Republicans at both the state and federal levels, including the governorships in New Mexico and Nevada, and seven new members in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now that the GOP has demonstrated its ability to run strong candidates, Vargas says, the challenge is to bring more Latino voters into the fold.

"Certainly, the Republican Party is being given the opportunity on a silver platter to ... reach across the aisle, to bridge the gap between the Republican Party and the Latino community," Vargas says.

At a recent news conference in Austin, Texas, Juan Hernandez of the political action committee Hispanic Republicans of Texas celebrated record gains in the state legislature, noting how far the group has come.

"And it was definitely not cool to be Hispanic, Republican, conservative, but it's getting cooler and cooler, isn't it?" Hernandez said.

A Bigger Tent

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele agrees that there is a shift happening in the Grand Old Party.

"This is not your mama and your daddy's Republican Party anymore," Steele says.

Nikki Haley i i

hide captionRepublican Gov.-elect Nikki Haley thanks supporters at a restaurant the day after being elected South Carolina's first female governor and the second Indian-American governor in the country.

David Goldman/AP
Nikki Haley

Republican Gov.-elect Nikki Haley thanks supporters at a restaurant the day after being elected South Carolina's first female governor and the second Indian-American governor in the country.

David Goldman/AP

Steele says he was frustrated to see so few minority delegates at the 2008 Republican National Convention, and the RNC has been working since to diversify its voices.

"I think we've got the flaps open. We'll see how big the tent will become," Steele says.

Downplaying The Significance

Steele says increasing diversity within the GOP is a trend that is overdue. But some minority Republicans are playing down the significance.

In South Carolina, Gov.-elect Nikki Haley says what she hopes to accomplish in office is more important than being the state's first female governor or her Indian-American heritage.

Rep.-elect Tim Scott, the first African-American Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina since Reconstruction, had a similar message for his supporters on election night.

"All we hear is the issue: He's a black Republican," Scott said. "I gotta tell you: I'm black, I'm proud, I've got a bald head and my style is beautiful. But let me just tell you the truth: All those things don't matter."

New Party Members, But Same Face?

Scott and Rep.-elect Allen West of Florida will be the first black Republicans in Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired seven years ago.

Still, David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, does not expect the new members to have much impact on the Republican agenda.

"Having two African-Americans out of [about 240 Republican seats] in the House of Representatives is not going to change the fact that the Republican Party represents white people," Bositis says.

Bositis says older whites are still the GOP voter base, which is reflected in the party's caucus.

"If you had a group picture of the Republican members of the Congress, and if you wanted to use Photoshop to distill it into one face, it would probably look like former Sen. Trent Lott," Bositis says.

The former Mississippi senator aside, Republicans are hoping their new faces will help bring in new voters in 2012.

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