Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., also won reelection last fall in a racially diverse Newport Beach-area district. He says that access and attention have been the keys to his success. “I see a Democrat of any hue as a prospect” for future support, he says. “Your calendar has to reflect that. I’ve spent time in the African-American community. The Latino community: I bring them in.” Rigell says that building bridges to minorities also has required sensitivity to subtle cultural differences invisible to many of his colleagues. For instance, he says he never refers to the president’s health care reform as “Obamacare,” because when “you refer to a sitting president by last name only, some will be offended by it, and some will see it as disrespect to a person of color.”
In districts where the white share of the voting population exceeds the national average, the GOP captured nine Democratic seats.
Both Rigell and Heck believe that the rising tide of diversity could submerge the GOP unless the party attracts more minorities. Heck says that his colleagues in areas largely untouched by racial change “need to look past their own political future and their own district. While they may be in a safe district or a nonminority district, for the party to be sustainable into the future we’ve got to think about things at national scale.… The Republican Party is, I think, at risk of fading away into insignificance as the minority population grows in the U.S.”
Rigell holds similar concerns. “We as Republicans have one of two choices,” he says. “You can either see this as some ominous disheartening trend causing you to hunker down and lament the long-term future of America—or, alternately, the only appropriate response [is to say], ‘Hey, no problem. Our ideas are better, our values are best for all Americans, people of color, people who aren’t.’ ”
Both men argue that the GOP’s disconnect with minority voters springs from tone rather than agenda. Certainly, House Republicans from diverse districts reflect that belief in their voting records. According to the latest National Journal vote ratings, Republicans from more-diverse seats have voting records no less conservative than their colleagues from more heavily white areas. (By contrast, Democrats from predominantly white districts vote to the right of those from more diverse places.)
But polling evidence suggests that, on several fronts, the conservative agenda popular in the vast majority of Republican-leaning House districts could collide with the party’s national goal of improving its minority performance. Surveys, including the Election Day exit poll, consistently show that most minority voters support more government activism than Republicans prefer. In particular, while retrenching or repealing Obama’s health care reform may be popular in GOP districts, the law wins much more support among Hispanics, nearly one-third of whom lack health insurance. Raising taxes on the highest earners also draws overwhelming minority support.
Immigration looms as the sharpest conflict between the needs of the national party and those of a House GOP majority with very few members representing large Hispanic constituencies. Polls show that most minority voters, especially Hispanics, support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.
Obama’s signal that he will make a major push for immigration reform in 2013 could place House Republicans in an excruciating spot. Virtually all of them oppose a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and many fear that supporting the idea might expose them to a primary challenge from the right. Yet a scenario in which House Republicans block immigration reform (especially if a comprehensive plan clears the Senate) could accelerate the party’s losses among Hispanic voters.
“That’s the worst possible outcome,” says Weaver, a senior strategist for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “We just got 27 percent [among Hispanic voters in the presidential race], and the trend lines are down everywhere. If we block immigration reform, what is going to happen? We should not only help pass it, we need to embrace it; and then we need to communicate other policies, particularly on the economic side, that can target [Hispanic voters].”
THE DEMOCRATIC CHOICE
Obama’s focus on immigration reform shows how these patterns of House support are affecting the Democratic Party. One reason he downplayed the issue during his first term was concern among the Blue Dogs that a reform push could hurt them politically. (The same dynamic has discouraged Democratic action on gun control.) But even with that issue shelved, those Blue Dog Democrats suffered sweeping losses in 2010 and further erosion in 2012. In the next Congress, Democrats will hold just 31 of the 143 seats in which whites constitute at least 80 percent of the voting-age population.