Against the Grain

Republicans Learning to Play Identity Politics

Party leaders are recruiting a diverse roster of candidates for Congress in 2020. Will GOP voters get behind their choices?

President Trump and Rep. Elise Stefanik
AP Photo/Hans Pennink
April 2, 2019, 8 p.m.

The phrase “identity politics” has become a dirty word in Republican circles these days. Conservatives are uniformly hostile to the Left’s attempt to elevate race and gender above merit, pointing to a single-minded obsession with candidates’ identity at the expense of the content of their character or policy positions.

Their criticisms of the excesses of the identitarian movement are well-founded. But at its purest form, identity has always been a part of politics. Catholics were understandably proud when John F. Kennedy became the nation’s first Catholic president, Jews embraced Joe Lieberman as the first Jewish major-party nominee on a presidential ticket, and Barack Obama thrilled African-Americans for finally breaking the racial barrier that held back black politicians for so long.

Republicans have been similarly proud of their own trailblazers in politics. In her first South Carolina gubernatorial campaign, Nikki Haley surged past a primary field of white guys, playing up her unique biography to underscore her antiestablishment credentials. In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio became a Republican star after his stunning Senate victory—in large part because of his Hispanic heritage. As recently as 2014, Republicans boasted more nonwhite statewide officeholders than their Democratic counterparts.

In the Trump era, that recent history has been forgotten. As Democrats have rapidly diversified their ranks in the past several elections, Republicans have grown more homogeneous. Only 11 of the 255 Republican members of Congress are nonwhite—a marked decline from last cycle. There are only 13 Republican women in the House, the lowest number in over two decades for the party. The reality was so bleak that Rep. Elise Stefanik launched a political action committee to boost female candidates for the House next year.

But as my colleague Ally Mutnick reported, Republicans are belatedly recognizing the reality that voters are more receptive to candidates’ messages if they look like them. Nearly 100 women have already talked to the National Republican Congressional Committee about running a congressional campaign or have publicly declared interest in running. So far, a significant share of the early Republican recruits for the House next year are women and candidates of color.

The roster of possible recruits includes prominent politicos and up-and-coming prospects. Former Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti is considering a challenge against Rep. Sean Casten in a suburban Chicago seat that's traditionally Republican. Yorba Linda, California Councilwoman Peggy Huang filed a statement of candidacy to challenge Rep. Katie Porter in Orange County. Army combat veteran Wesley Hunt, who is African-American, just announced his campaign against newly-elected Rep. Lizzie Fletcher in Texas.

“Republicans are becoming better at recruiting candidates from communities that they hadn’t been reaching out to, candidly. They’re understanding the same cookie-cutter mold doesn’t work anymore,” said Josh Holmes, the former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Leaders have a responsibility ensuring their party is making an effort to include people with all kinds of perspectives—whether it’s gender, race, or religious backgrounds.”

Republicans are clear-eyed that President Trump will be a drag on their fortunes in Democratic-trending suburban districts, limiting the opportunities for compelling recruits to run ahead of the national ticket. But they also recognize that the national environment in 2020 is likely to be more favorable to them, especially if Democrats nominate an outspoken progressive to head the national ticket.

In the swing districts where House Republicans got clobbered, candidates who look and act differently than the president can have a big impact in a competitive district, partially offsetting the taint of Trump. After all, many of these districts voted for Republican members of Congress in 2016 as a check against the possibility of a Clinton presidency. If Democrats again look poised for a political takeover, the right kind of Republican candidates could look like a worthwhile balance against encroaching liberalism.

There’s plenty of evidence backing up that thinking. Many of the GOP’s strongest candidates in the 2018 House blowout were nonwhite. In Texas, Rep. Will Hurd was one of only three Republicans to prevail in a district that Hillary Clinton carried. Despite losing, former Rep. Carlos Curbelo in Florida and former California Assemblywoman Young Kim ran close races in districts where Trump was deeply unpopular.

The political reality is that most of the districts that Republicans need to win back—even those that tilted to Trump—have a sizable share of nonwhite voters. Republicans can’t afford to lose support with women as badly as they did in the midterms. They need to find candidates who look like America to have a chance at the majority.

The biggest challenge for Republicans will be convincing their own voters on the merits of diversity. Party leaders have long desired to handpick favored candidates, but their voters have taken the party in a different direction. That tension between the establishment and the Trumpified base will once again be a recurring theme as Republicans try to take back control of Congress.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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