Picture the first Democratic presidential debate next year: presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, surrounded by a group of white men hoping to play spoiler.
Then picture the Republican presidential debate stage: two Hispanic Americans, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; an African American, Ben Carson; and an Indian American, Bobby Jindal. Add to that Jeb Bush, a Spanish-speaking former governor with a Mexican-born wife; and Rand Paul, a senator who has made appealing to black voters a central part of his political identity.
At its highest levels, the Republican Party is building a noticeably more diverse group of talent—call it the GOP’s Rainbow Coalition.
This didn’t happen by accident. While the Republican Party’s minority-outreach programs have been mocked in years past—often since they were so at odds with GOP policies that alienated black and Hispanic voters—in the wake of 2012 drubbing at the hands of Barack Obama, the party began a concerted effort to aggressively recruit black and Hispanic candidates.
Today, the Republicans can call upon an array of minority senators, governors, and congressmen. Black Sen. Tim Scott was elected to fill out Jim DeMint’s Senate term. Black Republican members-elect include Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas. Minority governors Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley, and Brian Sandoval all won reelection. Along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, that gives the GOP four people of color in charge of statehouses. The Democrats have just one, the governor-elect of Hawaii.
It’s a far cry from 2010 and the height of the Tea Party insurgency, when the GOP relied heavily on a single figure to speak to minorities: African-American Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
That’s because previous minority outreach in the Republican Party had been “nothing more than a cocktail party and a photo op,” Steele told The Daily Beast. Attitudes within the party were essentially unchanged; they just put new faces on an old, melanin-deprived product. Steele said that’s starting to change, at least a bit. “You now have a growing number of candidates and elected officials who can do that without having to fall into that trap.”
But so far, minority candidates aren’t translating into minority votes. Exit-polling data from the midterms show that Democrats won the support of 90 percent of black Americans, 63 percent of Hispanic Americans, and 49 percent of Asian Americans, even with midterm turnout that is favorable toward Republicans.
And in South Carolina, Sen. Scott received just 10 percent of the black vote.
“Do not misread this election to think that black folks are falling over themselves to support Republicans because we picked up a few black votes here and there,” Steele said. “it’s an opening, but it is not at all dispositive of success. There’s a lot more work to be done.”
The work began in earnest after Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign loss in 2012, when the GOP was faced with a choice. It could have doubled down on white candidates and white voters, or it could start reaching out to Latinos, Asian American and black voters—and recruited individuals who these voters could relate to.
In the post-2012 Republican autopsy report commissioned by the RNC, the authors stressed the need to be “actively engaging women and minorities” in their candidate recruitment efforts.
“We put an emphasis on recruiting candidates because we need to get younger, and we need to get more diverse,” RNC spokesman Jason Chung said.
At the time, those words were viewed as just diversity happy talk. But then something funny happened: The GOP actually began to recruit black and Hispanic candidates. When DeMint retired, just months after Romney’s loss, Gov. Haley turned to a popular congressman in the midst of just his second term, Tim Scott, to be his successor.
Utah’s Mia Love spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention, before losing her House race that year by just 800 votes. The Republican-led legislature oversaw state redistricting just the year before—prompting charges of gerrymandering from state Democrats—but it wasn’t enough for her to eke out a win. When Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson opted not to run again, Love won by several thousand votes in the 2014 midterms.
And Asian-American Republican Michelle Park Steel won election this month as Orange County supervisor, a bright point in the party’s explicit efforts to elect minority candidates in the Golden State.
Her husband, Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman and the former chairman of the California GOP, has been working on recruiting and promoting minority candidates for years.
“It’s quite subtle, but it’s becoming more clear every day,” Steel said. “We’ve got a young, diverse talent pool, and I’m looking very seriously at Sandoval or Susana Martinez as vice-presidential material.”
Thinking inside the conservative movement is also changing, slowly, on the topic of race. Not long ago, the concept of diversity was viewed as anti-meritocratic—even harmful. It was associated with government heavy-handedness and viewed with disdain. Now it’s viewed by a growing segment of conservatives as integral.
“In the Republican Party, when you heard the word diversity a few years ago, it meant affirmative action, quotas. That to this day is something that is unacceptable to most conservatives,” said Steel, the California GOP national committeeman. “Today, the meaning for Republicans has changed—[it means] an inclusion of people from different backgrounds.”
Republicans argue that they have a different spin on diversity, however. Sen. Ted Cruz, one of two Hispanic Republicans in the Senate, accused Democrats of “pigeonholing” minority candidates.
“They have a very difficult time running statewide, where you have to appeal to more than one ethnic or racial slice—you’ve got to appeal to a big tent, and the Democratic Party has such an unfortunate history of pigeonholing candidates that it has proven very difficult for Hispanic candidates... to appeal statewide,” Cruz said.
Roland Martin, a prominent black newscaster and Daily Beast contributor, disagrees, saying minority Cabinet members aren’t typically governors—or even national politicians. And though Republicans are racking up minority leaders at the national level, it continues to face a fundamental obstacle.
“The GOP still has a basic problem: Its policies aren’t building a diverse electorate,” Martin said.
Both Republican policies and offensive statements made by some GOP politicians have had a hand in this. Immigration activists argue that the Republican Party is alienating Hispanic voters by not allowing comprehensive immigration reform to pass. And some House Republicans supported speeding up the deportations of Central American minors who arrived alone in the United States.
Sen. Rand Paul has also been frank in arguing that Republican efforts to restrict voting rights and toughen drug laws alienate minority voters.
Then there are the outrageous remarks. Take Rep. Steve King’s claim that for every undocumented immigrant valedictorian, there are 100 who have “calves the size of cantaloupes” due to drug smuggling across the border. House Speaker John Boehner condemned the remark, but the damage was done.
And there was broad Republican support for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over the issue of federal land-grazing rights, which quickly turned into backpedalling after the rancher wondered if black Americans would be better off as slaves.
Even when GOP minority candidates get elected, they get attacked for being less than genuinely black or Hispanic because of their political beliefs. Democrats argue that a real member of these groups wouldn’t represent a party that operated so totally against their interests.
Cruz, for one, has been the subject of such jabs. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said that Cruz shouldn’t “be defined as a Hispanic.”
Cruz, who certainly considers himself Hispanic, had fighting words in response.
“I’m always amused at people who set themselves up as the arbiters of ethnicity. I would be amused to see if they would have had the same view when my father arrived in Austin, Texas, in 1957 at the age of 18, not speaking a word of English, having been imprisoned and tortured and coming here seeking the American dream,” Cruz said on Election Night.
Mere minutes later, Cruz delivered a speech at the victory party for Texas Governor-elect Greg Abbott, who won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.
“One of the reasons I’m a Republican is that we treat people as individuals. When I ran for Senate, I didn’t run saying, ‘Vote for the Hispanic guy,’” he told The Daily Beast. “I ran saying, ‘Vote for a proven conservative’… who also happens to be the son of an immigrant who came from Cuba with nothing, not speaking English, seeking the American dream. And that’s the right relationship, I think.”