Reframing Race

T.W. Shannon Is a Sign of Things to Come in the GOP

The Oklahoman may have lost, but there are soon going to be more Republicans of color like him.

Sue Ogrocki/AP

As analysts dissect the primary loss of former Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon for the seat of retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, I have been asked in recent days whether his candidacy is an anomaly for the GOP. The former speaker, who also happens to be black, narrowly lost his bid to join Tim Scott (R-SC) in the Senate GOP caucus and increase black GOP representation by 100 percent. More bluntly, is the Republican Party serious about recruiting and supporting diverse candidates for federal and state office, or is it merely doing lip service in advance of the 2016 presidential contest to appeal to people of color?

Our track record has been less than stellar over the years. When I first arrived on Capitol Hill in 1991, then-Rep. Gary Franks (R-CT) was the lone black member of the GOP in the House of Representatives. Franks has only been followed in the House by former Representatives J.C. Watts (R-OK) and by Scott, who resigned his House seat to fill the vacancy left by Jim DeMint. Three black representatives to Congress in a nearly quarter of a century span is hardly anything to be proud of: are alarm bells ringing at the Republican National Committee or will this paucity of diversity be the harbinger of the GOP’s future?

I spoke at length this week with party officials both inside and outside the RNC to get a better sense of their grasp of the problem we face as a party as well as solutions to making the party more representative of the population of America.

First, with little fanfare, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) launched the Future Majority Project three years ago with the specific goal to increase the number of women and people of color elected to office. The RSLC is the largest caucus of Republican state leaders and the only national organization whose specific purpose is to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican office holders. This encompasses everything from lieutenant governorships, elected statewide positions such as secretary of state, and representatives to the state house and state senate. Jill Bader, communications director of the project, was quite expansive and enthusiastic when discussing party efforts to recruit and support diverse candidates at the state level.

“In order for us to be successful as party,” Bader began, “we need to reflect the full diversity of America.” A fair and true point, but what is the GOP doing to make this goal a reality?

The project’s initial benchmark was set at recruiting and supporting 200 candidates of color to seek statewide office in addition to 300 women candidates. To do so, there was a recognition that the typical Republican model of letting the “next one in line” run would do little to recruit new—and more diverse—candidates for office. Instead, party officials recognized that they needed to engage in a true grassroots campaign, asking neighbors to recommend neighbors—fresh faces well-known at the local level but perhaps not by state leaders in far away capitals. Thus far, the Future Majority Project is on the ground and active in 35 states.

Part of the problem, Bader said, in attracting a diverse slate of candidates is the relentless waged against the GOP in the media—the “War on Women,” or “Republicans are Racist and Seek to Roll Back the Clock.” Any casual perusal of MSNBC or The New York Times reflects this bias. Paraphrasing former Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno (my fellow Board Member on the American Conservative Union), Bader offered: “We don’t need to change our principles but the tone of our message and those who deliver it.”

The embodiment of Fortuno’s admonition is evident when looking at two black candidates who ran for elective office within the last year: the aforementioned T.W. Shannon for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, and E.W. Jackson’s bid to become the first black lieutenant governor in the Commonwealth of Virginia. While the conservative credentials of both men was unimpeachable, the tone of the message and those who delivered it could not have been more stark. Jackson ran largely on social issues, which largely alienated more moderate Republicans, while Shannon narrowly lost his bid while focusing on fiscal matters and discussing social issues in a manner that was far more approachable and less smash-mouthed in delivery.

Party officials are particularly bullish on the candidacy of Dr. Patricia Mays, a black woman running to represent the 10th District in the Arkansas State House. In announcing her candidacy Mays noted:

I decided to run for House of Representatives because there is a need for legislators who will pass laws that align with the values of the citizens they represent. I believe that our representatives should be aware of the current issues, gather all the relevant facts, solicit input from all of their constituents then make the best decision that they can based on the available information.

That hardly sounds like some fire-breathing hard-right crackpot. If national Republican leaders can embrace and broadcast this message of love for their fellow citizens while advocating policies that will allow people to live out the American Dream, the GOP can reverse decades of low participation by diverse voters while increasing the number of candidates of color and women to represent them at the state, local and federal level. Of the goals to recruit 200 candidates of color and 300 women by the Future Majority Project? They have exceeded their numbers: 236 diverse candidates and more than 400 women. If they play their cards right, Republicans can reflect true diversity in its ranks—unlike a democratic party that relies on more than 90 percent of the black vote—some would say, taking them and their vote for granted.

For its part, the RNC has been aggressively courting black voters back to the party of Abraham Lincoln. The task ahead isn’t an easy one. Democrats and their enablers in the media have effectively painted the GOP in many instances as being racist: anti-affirmative action, seeking to disenfranchise the black vote, etc. Republicans need to do a better job of fighting back against such propaganda; a recent poll shows that a majority of blacks support rather than oppose voter id laws. And it is hardly racist for Republicans to suggest that people should be treated equally under the law regardless of skin color—President Kennedy famously told the nation in 1963 in an address on civil rights following the forced desegregation of the University of Alabama that race has no place in American law or life.

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Only by judging people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin can we advance to a true color blind society. Republicans are right to court blacks based on shared goals, beliefs and principles; Democrats are wrong to criticize such efforts by calling the GOP racist at every turn.