Correction: The executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials is Arturo Vargas. An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name.
From statehouses to Congress to the 2008 primary smackdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats can claim a more diverse party than Republicans. But it’s the GOP that has the top talent poised to compete on the national stage – a major plus as Mitt Romney gets serious about finding a running mate.
That’s the good news. The bad: Most of the hot prospects are newcomers to the national political scene, and if it’s one thing the GOP doesn’t want, it’s Sarah Palin redux with another untested novice.
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Four of the six female governors in the country are Republicans and two of them – Nikki Haley from South Carolina and Susana Martinez from New Mexico – have been mentioned as vice presidential fodder. But both took office less than two years ago and have said they’re not interested. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has campaigned a number of times with Romney, but she too has been in office for less than two years. The same is true of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who are Hispanic.
More-experienced hands include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is Indian-American, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice brings an extra x chromosome and minority status to the ticket, but also baggage such as her association with former president George W. Bush and the Iraq war.
“It’s clear the Republicans have a much broader bench,” Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said. “I also think that to some extent it’s a little bit more of a troubled bench or untested bench.”
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Trippi said his party’s political fortunes are partly to blame for a diversity deficit in positions that usually lead to national prominence. “We took a massive shellacking in 2010 and we don’t hold very many governorships at all,” he said. In the Senate, another launch pad for people with national ambitions, 12 of 17 women are Democrats. But Trippi said few have expressed an interest in running for higher office as many are near the end of their careers.
Democrats have one black governor – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – and a black mayor with star power in Newark’s Cory Booker. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida currently chairs the Democratic National Committee, but her role as her party’s attack dog is not ideal for a national ticket. Former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, who conceived and created the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, could be a force in years to come if she wins her Massachusetts Senate race. But that’s a big if.
Romney’s vice presidential search is the first since his party’s 2008 roller-coaster ride with Palin, who had served less than two years as Alaska governor and came across as utterly unprepared for national office.
The Palin comparison is inevitable for vice presidential prospects in their first term, even if they demonstrate they are familiar with national issues, as Rubio did recently in a foreign policy speech. “All of those folks are people that I think would measure head and shoulders above Sarah Palin in terms of being prepared for that kind of opportunity,” former sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said of his party’s female and minority prospects.
Still, the GOP is unlikely to take that kind of chance again. “I think after the Sarah Palin experience there may be some reluctance to go with a first-term governor, a first-term anything. I think that’s going to be part of the challenge,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, as she reflected on whether Romney will chose a woman or minority to join him on the ticket. “I think they’re probably going to want somebody … who’s been in office a little bit longer,” she said.
That bodes well for Republicans over the next decade. “When you look at the next 10, 12 years, we have a very strong bench of women and minorities who come up through the system organically,” said Republican strategist Cherie Jacobus. Up-and-comers include Reps. Tim Scott of South Carolina (who is black); Kristi Noem of South Dakota (a member of the House GOP leadership), and Jaime Herrara Beutler of Washington state (who is Hispanic).
Still, a deep bench in a dozen years is no help to Romney in his quest this year. While there’s no guarantee that putting a woman or minority on the ticket will win votes, a woman could help him close a huge gender gap. “The image of the VP tends to merge with the image of the president so voters don’t particularly vote a separate image. That being said, however, one of the issues that Romney has is he really needs to have women take a second look at him because there are pretty high negatives about him,” said pollster Celinda Lake, who studies messaging to women voters. “One way to accomplish that might be to pick a woman VP.”
Martinez agreed that picking a woman or Latino politician for the ticket could excite the party and help Romney with those demographics without sacrificing quality. Like women, Latino voters lean Democratic but can be convinced to cross over. Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, cited two examples: Republican Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban American, ran for mayor in the Democratic-leaning city of Houston and won because of the pride in his heritage that he displayed. In the California governor’s race after Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won the Latino vote over Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat.
In 15 or 20 years, the Democrats may regain their edge as women and minorities in state legislatures rise to national office. Right now, women hold 23.7 percent of state legislature seats, and 60 percent of them are Democrats. Among Latinos, the largest minority population in the U.S., that figure is even more striking: Vargas estimated that 85 to 90 percent of Latino officials in local government are Democrats.