Republicans Stage Diverse Show Amid Struggle to Draw Minorities

Republicans Stage Diverse Show Amid Struggle to Draw Minorities
Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah Mia Love speaks during the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, on Aug. 28, 2012. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On the first night of the Republican National Convention, a 37-year-old black woman delivered a spirited speech to the audience of largely white, largely middle-aged delegates.

Mia Love, the Republican mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, and a candidate for Congress, was born to Haitian parents who came to Brooklyn with $10 and who, Love proudly says, “never took a handout” from the government, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 3 issue.

She was followed on stage by a succession of speakers who also didn’t fit the white-guy-in-a-tie Republican mold: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, an Indian American; New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez; former Barack Obama supporter Artur Davis; Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval; Sher Valenzuela, who’s running for lieutenant governor in Delaware; and Ted Cruz, a Harvard-educated, Tea Party candidate for the Senate from Texas.

They told of coming to America, overcoming adversity, and finding a home in the Republican Party.

The decision to showcase their stories in prime time says a lot about the party’s increasingly urgent desire to be seen as welcoming to minorities and women. It’s more than a show of inclusiveness.

After decades of half-hearted efforts to attract blacks, Hispanics and unmarried white women, most of whom vote for Democrats, Republican leaders realize that unless the party expands its pool of support, it could slide into irrelevance in coming decades.

85% of Growth

The numbers tell the story. Almost 87 percent of registered Republican voters are white, according to the Pew Research Center. In contrast, 61 percent of registered Democrats are white, 21 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. These numbers are becoming more important because minorities have accounted for 85 percent of the country’s population growth over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hispanics make up the largest portion of that growth, and Obama leads Republican candidate Mitt Romney by 34 percentage points among Hispanics, an August NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll shows.

Among women, who have leaned Democratic for three decades, Obama leads by 14 points. Men are split evenly. The census projects that non-whites will outnumber whites by 2042. If voting and population trends continue, Republicans face what Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, and other party leaders have described as an electoral tipping point, when Republicans will have trouble securing a majority of the popular vote.

Visible Effect

The effect is already visible in this year’s presidential race. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, calculates that the number of registered Hispanic voters has grown enough since 2008 that if Obama maintains the same proportion of minority support that he held four years ago, he can win California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin even without the backing of a majority of whites.

Given all that, it’s easy to see why Republicans are looking to increase their appeal to women and especially to non-whites. It’s been a tough sell.

Among other things, the party’s traditional opposition to unions and affirmative action, and Romney’s vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act, keep most blacks at arm’s length. And the party isn’t doing much better among Hispanics.

‘By the Wayside’

“We were at a great point in 2004,” said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, which works to attract Latinos to the Republican Party. That year George W. Bush, who bucked his party and advocated for less stringent immigration rules, won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Since then, says Korn, “It seemed to go by the wayside.”

At the same time Obama is campaigning on his decision to stop deportations of young illegal immigrants, Republicans are embracing tough immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. While that may reassure white Republicans, it drives off Hispanics.

“I call it the immigration earmuffs,” says Korn. “Even if they agree with you on lower taxes, on jobs, and less regulation, they’ve been turned off by harsh immigration rhetoric.”

Party leaders don’t seem to know what to do about it. Changing their positions on issues to win the support of women and minorities would mean abandoning some core Republican beliefs. Instead, they insist that what they need to do is the opposite: Stick to what they believe and persuade voters to come to them.

Broaden Appeal

“It’s more of a, ‘How do we describe this issue to key demographics,’ as opposed to a change in policy,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who advises congressional candidates. The party must appeal to those “trying to make ends meet, making sacrifices every day, taking coupons into the grocery store --- and directly appealing to them that Mitt Romney has a better plan.”

In Tampa, Florida, that vision of a Republican Party, flush with black and Hispanic true believers, came to life. At least on stage.

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