Do Republicans Protect Minority Candidates? They Should

A post I wrote last week on Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has hit a nerve with many readers, and I think a response to the responses is called for. 
Senator Tim Scott at CPAC. Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

A post I wrote last week on Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has hit a nerve with many readers, and I think a response to the responses is called for.

My speculation was that Scott faces no significant primary challenge because his party recognizes the extra value that a black Republican brings. Stating that the party that abhors affirmative action is engaging in a kind of bank-shot version of its own was bound to grate. But hypocrisy -- a common political currency, and sometimes a beneficial one -- wasn't actually my point. Rather, I was raising a question: Would Republican Party leaders -- elected officials, donors, consultants and the like -- step in to discourage primary competition against a candidate like Scott on the basis of race?

Every four years, the Republican National Convention inspires jokes about how there are more black and Hispanic faces on the stage than in the party ranks. The party goes to great extremes to showcase its minority talent, giving them exposure and speaking slots that many politicians crave.


Because Republicans -- at least the faction of the party that wins presidential nominations and controls national conventions -- recognize that they have a problem. As a largely monoracial party in an increasingly multiracial nation, Republicans seek to ease concerns that their racially polarizing past (if you object to this characterization, please take it up with Pat Buchanan or Lee Atwater or Ken Mehlman) is still shaping the present. The racial diversity on stage is a Potemkin village. But it also points to the multiracial future many leaders of the party envision -- provided their efforts aren't derailed.

The most substantive charge against my post was articulated by Justin Green at the Washington Examiner. It's pretty straightforward and goes like this:

Scott has impeccable conservative credentials (evidenced by lofty ratings from Heritage Action). Why would Scott generate a Tea Party opponent if Scott himself is a Tea Party stalwart? By this light, it's obvious that Scott's own right-wing politics have insulated him from intra-party competition. His skin color is irrelevant.

It's a sensible point, and in the individual case of Scott, it may be correct. (I raised it myself in the original post.) But it also may not be. For one thing, it presumes that insufficient ideological purity in an incumbent senator is the only reason anyone might consider a primary challenge. It's also inadequate in evaluating the larger phenomenon of black Republicanism.

American politics offers myriad ways for citizens to act on their political principles. They can raise money, organize precincts, join a political organization or start a new one. They can participate in party governance or work on a campaign. But ideological principles are not what put people in the Senate. Candidates for this office have a gnawing appetite for status, power and recognition -- and they sometimes even tailor their principles to advance their ambitions.

Scott seems like a perfectly decent man and able politician. But if you were a South Carolina Republican and wanted his seat, now would be the time to go for it. He has not previously won a statewide election. He was appointed to the Senate, to fill a vacancy, only last year by a governor who is not terribly popular herself. He is not well known. Only 18 percent disapprove of Scott's job performance, which is terrific, but only 43 percent approve, which is not. And one third of voters don't know him well enough to form an opinion.

Scott has done pretty well raising money, but otherwise his profile is not formidable. Furthermore, he is in his 40s. If he wins this year, he may well close off the seat to other aspirants for a quarter century or more. And then there is the open question of whether being black in a statewide Republican primary in South Carolina would help, hurt or neither -- and how willing a given opponent would be to play racial politics. (Is it relevant that Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican presidential primary in 2012, after repeatedly calling Obama the "food stamp president"?)

Yet while South Carolina's senior senator, Lindsey Graham, drew a handful of primary competitors this year, all on the grounds that Graham is an affront to conservative purity, Scott drew but a single opponent who didn't even leave election officials a valid phone number.

A white Republican is a politician. A black Republican is both a politician and a living, breathing refutation of the claim that the party is hostile to minorities. It seems logical to me that a party that goes to such great lengths to highlight its minority members at every convention might also want to discourage primary challenges against black candidates whose careers it wishes to preserve.

This is not outlandish. It is not racist. It is politics. It happens all the time. Democrats discouraged primary opponents to Alex Sink in a special House election in Florida this year. Why wouldn't Republicans discourage opposition to someone like Scott? They are not going to lose a South Carolina seat to a Democrat. And in many ways, the value of a black senator is vastly greater than the value of a white senator.

This was the idea behind my post. I'm confident it was not perfectly articulated. But as a thought experiment, it is not such a shocking notion. It also has reverberations for the future of the Republican Party. There is a battle under way between those who are happy maintaining the façade of diversity we see every four years, and those who recognize that Republicans must stake an authentic claim to Hispanic, black and Asian votes to thrive in the future.

It's hardly an impossible task. President George W. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote and broke double digits with black voters in 2004. (Before Obama became president, I argued that Bush may have done more to pave his way than any other politician.) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did even better among minority voters in his re-election last November. Representative Paul Ryan and, in his idiosyncratic way, Senator Rand Paul both seem to get it, too. But lots of Republicans still don't.

Democrats began working through the agonies of racial coalition-building decades ago, engaging in racially divisive primaries in New York City and other places before the dust finally settled into a murky, unfixed rainbow. If Republicans begin to build a multiracial coalition of their own, American politics will have a markedly different character. It will still feature strife and conflict, but also great promise and vitality. If Republicans instead retreat into racial exclusivity, vicious politics is all but guaranteed. So back to the question: Do Republicans protect their best black and brown candidates from intra-party competition? They would be foolish not to.

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