Black Republican Wins and the Drive for a Bigger GOP Tent

Three African-American Republicans win races in the South. Samuel P. Jacobs on the victors’ chances this fall—and whether the Bush-era bid for a bigger GOP tent is gaining new momentum.

Republicans looking for a feel-good story about widening their party’s tent need look no further than South Carolina’s First Congressional District where Tim Scott, a black lawmaker from Charleston, beat Paul Thurmond, the son of erstwhile segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. There hasn’t been an African-American Republican in the House of Representatives since Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts exited in 2003. Scott’s solidly Republican district will almost certainly send him to Washington in the fall, making him the fourth black Republican to be elected to Congress in the modern era.

“If we have three to five elected this fall,” Johnson says, “that is better than any election since Reconstruction.”

But Scott wasn’t the only black Republican to score a win on Tuesday night. In North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, former military man Bill Randall won a run-off, setting him for an uphill contest against Democratic incumbent Brad Miller. In Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District, Bill Marcy, a retired Chicago police officer, won the GOP nomination. Marcy, too, faces a Democratic incumbent, Bennie Thompson, unlikely to lose his seat.

John Avlon: Crazy Texas Republicans Timothy F. Johnson, founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a group dedicated to adding African-Americans to the party of Lincoln’s ranks, originally had his eye on 32 black candidates running on the Republican ticket this cycle. The primary process has winnowed that group down. He says he expects a half-dozen or more black candidates to make it to the general election, and a smaller subset to actually win a ticket to Washington. While candidates like Scott, Randall, and Marcy defy the good ol’ boy image of the GOP in the south, African-American candidates like Ryan Frazier and David Castillo have appeared out West.

“For far too long, all Americans have assumed that all blacks think alike and vote alike,” Johnson says. “We don’t. We’re just as opinionated as the rest of America. No president should assume that because their skin color is the same as mine that they ultimately have my vote.” The black Republicans getting the most attention these days are Star Parker, running in California’s 37th District, and Florida’s Allen West. Parker has attracted party glitterati like Sarah Palin to her side, but her district, which includes Long Beach and Compton, is about as blue as they come. West, a retired lieutenant colonel, has a real shot of bumping off Democratic Rep. Ron Klein.

“This is not about trying to get 40 out of 40,” Johnson, who is vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, says. “We’re showing that black candidates do run as Republicans. Many of them have the heart but they are learning as the go.”

Four percent of African-Americans voted for John McCain in 2008. Only 1.5 percent of delegates in the Republican National Convention were black. The lily-white affair played so poorly that party officials have dedicated themselves to diversifying the ranks by the time the 2012 convention rolls around in Tampa Bay. At minimum, the GOP is aiming to have 10 times as many black delegates in Florida, raising the number from 36 to 360.

Johnson’s ultimate goal? Having as many black Republicans in Congress as black Democrats. But that will take time—and even a few black Republican congressmen winning in November would be historic.

“If we have three to five elected this fall,” Johnson says, “that is better than any election since Reconstruction.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.