Democrats beware. Republicans have apparently found a way to break the Democrats’ almost 40-year stranglehold on the African-American electorate. No longer satisfied with writing off about 90 percent of an entire ethnic group each election cycle, the Republican leadership has hatched this most cunning of political strategies: aggressively promoting persons of color within the party as rising stars and as national party leaders. No longer will opponents be able to characterize Republicans as a party of old white men.
Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal notwithstanding, I realized the unveiling of this strategy locally when a friend forwarded me a campaign e-mail introducing Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley as a candidate for governor. Because I was in a low-coverage area, my PDA could not download Ms. Haley’s picture as I read the e-mail for the first time. But in viewing the text alone, I was intrigued by the tone of the message, which seemed intent on wanting to “present” her as a “fresh face” on the national stage. Having never seen Ms. Haley before, I suspected it was not a white face that the writer of the e-mail wanted to present. I was right.
Nikki Haley is a conservative Indian-American, who not surprisingly is often compared to another fast-rising Republican star, the aforementioned Jindal. Her bona fides echo Sarah Palin’s, as her “socially and fiscally conservative credentials are burnished with strong ratings from the NRA and the Club for Growth.” She has taken on the establishment and won, the e-mail reads, as she bucked party leaders in pushing for fiscal restraint and transparency.
To be sure, she sounded impressive. But the sudden ascension of an ethnic woman from relative obscurity to a possible place as the new face of the state GOP and a strong contender for the state’s highest office — what are the chances that this rapid ascension coincidentally occurs in the same year that the GOP loses the White House and Congress to an increasingly diverse Democratic coalition? Not much.
Haley may turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread, but the cynic in me cringes every time the GOP ushers out another brown or black face in an unabashed attempt to appeal to people of color. Surely no one in 2009 thinks that blacks vote on racial affinity alone.
Republicans often invoke the Great Emancipator as proof that the party has historically welcomed African Americans, but the self-styled “party of Lincoln” lost its moral entitlement to that claim during the Civil Rights era. It was then that disaffected whites flocked en masse to the Republican party, transforming it, after Democrats supported the Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson lamented at the time that he may have lost the South for a generation by supporting the legislation, and he was right: the South has been almost solidly Republican ever since.
Blacks have continued to vote Democratic not because more Democratic leaders are minorities, but because the Republican Party has largely ignored, or even opposed, African-American interests. But now that Michael Steele is the RNC chair, blacks are supposed to suddenly consider switching to the Grand Old Party? I don’t think so.
Republicans might get a few brownie points for finally discovering that being a white male is not a prerequisite for political leadership, but until the policies and the tone of the Republican message change as well, support from minority voters will be increasingly hard to find.