Herman Cain, an African-American former pizza-chain executive who has never held elected office, sits atop the polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Most people never saw it coming, but perhaps they should have.
Cain’s rise in the polls has been fueled primarily by the tea party, a movement that—intentionally or not—has diversified the Republican Party, helping to elect a string of high-profile minorities who have become national stars on the right. And it wasn’t easy. The emergence of conservative sensations such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Cain took place in the face of active resistance from the Republican establishment.
After the 2010 wave election, Republicans saw the number of minorities in their ranks in Congress and governors’ mansions jump from three to 14. And most of these candidates, from Rep. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina to Rep. Raul Labrador in Idaho, caught a tailwind of antiestablishment fervor.
The biggest roadblocks to these challengers often were within their own party. The unlikely rise of Rubio is the exemplar. The son of Cuban immigrants and the former Florida House speaker, Rubio ran against Charlie Crist, then the state’s Republican governor and a well-known, well-financed pol who enjoyed deep establishment ties. Upon kicking off his campaign in May 2009, Crist was bestowed with the apotheosis of an establishment endorsement when he received the blessing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But what was initially perceived as a boon would later be viewed as something of a death knell for the early front-runner. Opponents portrayed Crist as the prototypical GOP insider. The combination of animosity directed at his moderate positions and ties to President Obama only helped Rubio’s conservative, outsider pitch pick up speed.
“Despite some of the caricatures that are out there, Republican primary voters are color-blind,” said Alberto Martinez, an early Rubio backer. “They care about issues.”
If tea party voters don’t regard race as a factor in their electoral decisions, it’s not because the movement itself is racially diverse; many minority voters recoil from the tea party’s emphasis on shrinking government. According to a CBS News poll taken last October, 93 percent of self-identified tea party supporters were white. But that doesn’t mean they are unwilling to elect minority candidates who share their values.
Among the 87 Republican freshmen elected to the House in 2010, two, Scott and Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., are black. Before this year, no black Republican had served in Congress since 2003, when Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired. Both Scott and West rode a wave of tea party enthusiasm to unlikely victories. Scott, who was selected for a freshman leadership position, won a contested primary over Paul Thurmond, the son of former Sen. Strom Thurmond.
West’s victory is even more revealing. He ran in 2008 but lost to Democratic Rep. Ron Klein by nearly 10 points. In a rematch against Klein in 2010, in a very different climate, the outspoken and at times controversial Republican reversed his fortunes.
“It’s not about a party that went out there and tried to recruit people,” said West. “It’s about people that answer a call for their country. Four years ago I was sitting in the desert of Afghanistan, and I came back and I gave it a shot in 2008 and we excited people … and even though we came up a few points short, they wanted me to come back and run again in 2010.”
Labrador’s surprise election last year in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District is another example of a tea party-backed candidate defeating an establishment pick. In the GOP primary, Labrador, a Hispanic, beat military veteran Vaughn Ward, an early favorite who was one of the first 10 candidates chosen for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program. After upsetting Ward, Labrador went on to defeat Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, despite minimal support from the national party.
The tea party apparatus, say activists and officeholders who have benefited from the movement’s support, turns the traditional Republican hierarchical model on its head, allowing for the quick rise of nontraditional candidates.
That same phenomenon is apparent in Cain’s unexpected ascent. The recent decline of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the onetime GOP presidential front-runner, opened the door for another candidate to seize the conservative mantle—and that’s exactly what Cain has done. In a recent NBC News/Marist poll, he led the second-place finisher, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by 4 points. Among voters identifying themselves as tea partiers, Cain’s lead grew to 9 points.
The latest example of the tea party boosting a minority candidate’s chances against the wishes of the establishment can be found in Texas. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who has held the No. 2 spot in state government since 2003 and is the favorite in the Republican race to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, thanks to wide name recognition and immense personal wealth.
But when National Review ran a story on the race earlier this month, it wasn’t Dewhurst’s face gracing the conservative magazine’s cover, but that of former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American who has emerged from relative obscurity as the tea party alternative to Dewhurst. Cruz has the backing of nearly every major national tea party group and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., all of whom are hoping for a replay of Rubio’s victory over Crist. But this time, the NRSC, having experienced firsthand the consequences of choosing sides too early, isn’t making an endorsement.
Republicans from all wings of the party hope the newfound diversity is not merely emblematic but the beginning of a trend that could pay political dividends. The explosive population growth of the country’s ethnic minorities, especially the surging Hispanic population, means that the GOP must make inroads to persist as a national party.
“Republicans always had a message that was going to appeal to a certain group of these minorities,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “The problem is, they didn’t have the right messengers.”
Thanks to the rise of the tea party, the GOP may have found those messengers.
This article appears in the October 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.