Democrats have a diversity problem.
There, I said it. Many of you reading might be doing a double-take, thinking I went really “against the grain” with this column. You’re thinking: It’s clear Democrats are a much more inclusive party—just look at the fact that nearly one-third of House Democrats are non-white, while Republicans have struggled to diversify.
And am I so naïve to forget Democrats nominated and elected President Obama, the first black president?
But look deeper at the composition of Congress and the governorships, and it’s apparent the Democrats’ strong racial record is somewhat misleading, with its advantage in electing minorities mostly a result of House districts specifically drawn to elect minorities.
Of the 75 black, Hispanic, and Asian-American Democrats in Congress and governorships, only nine represent majority-white constituencies—and that declines to six in 2011. Two of the party’s rising black stars who sought statewide office this year were rejected by their party’s own base. And when you only look at members of Congress or governors elected by majority-white constituencies (in other words, most of the governorships and Senate seats, and 337 out of 435 House seats), Democrats trail Republicans in minority representation.
In fact, Republicans experienced a diversity boomlet this year. Cognizant of their stuffy national image, party leaders made a concerted effort to recruit a more diverse crop of candidates. That resulted in more than doubling the number of minority elected officials from six to 13—and a ten-fold increase (from one to 10) in the number of minorities representing majority-white constituencies.
The numbers reflect an inconvenient reality—even with their more diverse caucus, Democrats face the same challenges as Republicans in recruiting, nominating, and electing minority candidates to statewide office and in majority-white suburban and rural districts. The vast majority of black and Hispanic members hail from urban districts that don’t require crossover votes to win, or represent seats designed to elect minorities. They are more liberal than the average Democrat, no less the average voter, making it more difficult to run statewide campaigns.
These are far from trivial facts. This means Democrats lack a bench of minority candidates who can run for statewide office, no less national office. Most Democratic minorities make a career in the House, accruing seniority and influence but lacking broad-based political support.
The prime culprit in preventing minorities from having broader appeal is the process of gerrymandering majority-minority seats. It has guaranteed blacks and Hispanics representation, but at the cost of creating seats where candidates would have to appeal to a broader constituency, white and non-white alike. For decades, such districts were judicially mandated; in the South, officials still need clearance from the Justice Department to decrease the proportion of blacks voters in a district.
The logic behind gerrymandering stems from the Civil Rights era, when white voters were highly unlikely to vote for African-American candidates, so districts needed to be drawn so black voters could elect their own to Congress. It was effective—and necessary—to bring diversity to a homogeneous body. But now, the consequence of these contortions comes at great expense to Democrats and civil rights leaders alike.
The increase in minority representation comes at the cost of electing more moderate minorities best-positioned to win statewide. And by concentrating so many Democrats in one single district, it also protects neighboring Republicans -- a major reason why Republicans often are behind some of the most contorted gerrymandering plans.
“It’s not in the best interests of Southern voters, it’s certainly not in the interest of people who want a non-racial politics focused on substance and identity, and the content of a candidate’s character, not the color of their skin,” said outgoing Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., a centrist black congressman who lost his state’s gubernatorial primary this year.
The electorate is changing, too. Republicans this year elected two blacks from the South in white districts, Reps.-elect Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Allen West, R-Fla. Two Indian Americans, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Gov.-elect Nikki Haley, will lead the deep South states of Louisiana and South Carolina, respectively.
The obstacle for many black Democrats, Davis argued, is liberalism, not race.
“There’s no question in my mind white Southern voters will vote for a black candidate if they believe they are sympathetic to their viewpoint,” Davis said. "Tim Scott's election in South Carolina is powerful, overwhelming evidence that even conservative southern white voters will vote for a black candidate, but they will not vote for someone who disagrees with them on every issue under the sun."
Meanwhile, talented black House Democrats looking to broaden their horizons have hit roadblocks—not from voters, but from party leaders and activists. Davis ran as a moderate in his bid for governor of Alabama, avoiding racial appeals and distancing himself from the Obama administration's policies. He didn't even get out of the gubernatorial primary, rejected by both black leaders for not toeing the party line and party activists, many of whom backed his more-liberal, white primary opponent.
Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., a rising star in Congress, finished a distant third in the Florida Senate race, capturing just 20 percent of the vote. He barely won the Democratic vote over Gov. Charlie Crist, according to exit polls, and won just 12 percent of the white vote. Much of his support was concentrated in black precincts.
In an interview, Davis put the reality for his party bluntly: If black leaders don’t broaden their appeal, there will be a permanent ceiling for them.
"If they care about their children being able to aspire to being senator or governor, then they're going to have to recognize that candidates that run only as leaders of the black community... those candidates can't win -- and they will be completely non-competitive out of predominantly black districts," Davis said.
“The only kind of black candidate who can win outside of a state like Massachusetts or New York is one who can win significant support from white, independent voters.”
Contrast that with the GOP’s minority stars. Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, Haley, New Mexico Gov.-elect Susana Martinez, and Nevada Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval are being mentioned as national candidates for 2012. Scott is one of two freshman liaisons to House Republican leaders. GOP leaders are eager to showcase this, partly because of their recent lack of diversity in the ranks.
The GOP success this year in electing minority leaders who can appeal to a wide cross-section of voters should serve as a wake-up call to Democrats, who are accustomed to carrying the mantle of diversity. If Democrats don’t address their own challenges recruiting minority candidates with widespread appeal, the rise of Obama could be more the exception than the rule.