For Republicans who believe the tea party is responsible for the GOP's struggles, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to choose Rep. Tim Scott to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate would have come as a stunner. The nation’s second Indian-American governor appointed the only African-American who will be serving in the Senate come 2013. And not only are they both Republicans, they are tea party-aligned conservatives who took on the party establishment and won.
It’s ironic that at a time when party strategists are publicly panicking over the party’s need to diversify or face extinction, they’re blind to the reality that if it wasn’t for the much-maligned tea party, the Republican Party would be even more homogeneous than it is today.
Haley, a little-known state senator before being elected governor, would never have had a chance at becoming governor against the state’s good ol’ boy network of statewide officeholders. Scott would have been a long shot in his Republican primary against none other than Strom Thurmond’s youngest son. Marco Rubio, now the hyped 2016 presidential favorite, would have stepped aside to see now-Democrat Charlie Crist become the next senator, depriving the party of one of its most talented stars. Ted Cruz, the other Hispanic Republican in the Senate, would have never chanced a seemingly futile bid against Texas’s 67-year-old lieutenant governor, seen as a lock to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison.
But all those upset victories--all of which at the time seemed shocking--took place because of the conservative grassroots’ strong sentiment for outsiders who campaigned on their principles, and not over their past political or family connections. Even a decade ago, party officials would have been more successful in pushing these outsider candidates aside, persuading them to wait their turn. (In Rubio’s case, it almost worked.) Now, in an era where grassroots politicking is as easy as ever thanks to the proliferation of social media, more control is in the hands of voters. And contrary to the ugly stereotypes of conservative activists being right-wing to the point of racist, it’s been the tea party movement that’s been behind the political success of most prominent minority Republican officeholders.
There’s one wing of Republican soul-searchers that argues it’s the GOP’s overly conservative positions on issues--immigration, most prominent among them--that’s poisoning the Republican Party brand and damaged Mitt Romney’s candidacy, preventing any real inroads with the growing number of Hispanic and Asian-American voters. Mitt Romney’s call for illegal immigrants to "self-deport" certainly was one of the lowest points of his campaign. Their argument is on target, and deserves a wide hearing as party officials debate how to retool their agenda. But a bigger part of the challenge is the image the party presents to the public as well. Rubio, a fresh young Hispanic face who called for entitlement reforms in his 2010 campaign, nonetheless comfortably carried the Hispanic vote in Florida. Susana Martinez, running a conventionally conservative campaign for governor, won in heavily Hispanic and Democratic-leaning New Mexico that same year. Scott, a tea party conservative, won a handful of Obama supporters in both his general election campaigns, outperforming Romney by four points in 2012.
Mitt Romney, for all his personal attributes, was a throwback to a past generation, who seemed downright out-of-touch to the Generation X and millennials, who supported President Obama in large numbers. The party’s congressional leadership was so desperate when it didn’t have a female committee chair that it belatedly tapped Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan to head the House Administration Committee. They scrambled to head off an intraparty challenge to the lone woman, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, in leadership. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of female and Hispanic Republicans out there, even though they’re greatly outnumbered by Democrats. It’s that they need to be identified and encouraged to get involved in the political process.
Why can’t party campaign committees work to identify local officials or community leaders who best reflect the face of a diversifying America? Why don’t parties spend resources on Major League Baseball-like scouts who pore over states to encourage the next Mr. (or Mrs.) Smith to come to Washington? If popular reality shows like American Idol can identify the next big singing star, surely party leaders could be resourceful enough to find under-the-radar political outsiders with an interest in shaping public policy.
To be fair, the problem isn’t just a Republican one. As I’ve written, despite Obama’s historic election, Democrats boast relatively few statewide minority officeholders--even fewer than Republicans--despite their voting base being much more reliant on minority support. In 2012, recognizing the less-publicized challenge its party faced, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made a concerted effort to recruit a diverse crop of outsiders to run for the House in battleground districts, and its efforts paid off. The incoming House freshman class includes Tammy Duckworth, an Asian-born war hero who lost three limbs during the Iraq war; Ami Bera, an Indian-American physician; and Raul Ruiz, the son of farmworkers who became an emergency-room doctor.
Republicans face the taller task, given that their voting base is predominantly white, but the tea party provided a playbook for how it can be done. Forget one’s political history and reputation. Stop obsessing over which candidates can raise the most money, increasingly an anachronism in today’s super-PAC fueled political environment. Look for qualified outsiders who can put the best face forward for a Republican Party, with a message centered on opportunity. Nikki Haley and Tim Scott proved it can be done, and they are now two of the most powerful officeholders in South Carolina--in the heart of the old Confederacy.