South Carolina Republicans shattered racial traditions this week by voting to nominate an Indian-American woman for the state’s governorship and an African-American for the U.S. Congress—punctuating a year in which the GOP has fielded more non-white candidates nationally than any since the 19th century.
Nearly 40 African-Americans ran for the U.S. House or Senate as Republicans this year, according to the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a black Republican group. Eight black hopefuls have secured the GOP nomination in primaries, and several more are in the running in states where primaries haven’t yet been held.
Notable was the choice this week in a predominantly white congressional district in South Carolina of Tim Scott, a 44-year-old African-American, over the son of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond—a figure who once symbolized segregation in the Deep South.
Mr. Scott, a state House member and former chairman of the Charleston County council, tweeted Tuesday night that “history is made in S.C.!” Mr. Scott is now the favorite to win the election in November and thus become the first black Republican in Congress since Rep. J.C. Watts (R., Okla.) retired in 2003.
But a contradiction remains: Despite the GOP’s ability to attract minority candidates it has trouble luring minority voters. The vast majority of the non-white candidates running as Republicans already have lost, dropped out or are expected to lose this season.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Wednesday shows that support for the GOP among blacks and Hispanics has fallen sharply from earlier this decade. And the presence of an incumbent black Democratic president is likely to hinder African-American support for Republican presidential candidates in 2012.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is also black, has emphasized to minority groups his party’s historic origins as the opponent of slavery and its connections to the first black members of Congress during Reconstruction. He says the GOP’s success in fielding minority candidates this year is a watershed in returning diversity to the GOP but that the party must do much more to make an economic case to non-white voters.
“For anyone to think that this is somehow a panacea, and all African-Americans and Hispanics will start signing up for the GOP, you’re crazy,” Mr. Steele said in an interview. “We’ve got work to do. I’m not blind to that reality.”
Timothy F. Johnson, founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, said 2010 is a milestone—especially in tapping into the fundamental conservatism of many African-Americans on some social issues. “Blacks are conservative but they vote Democratic,” Mr. Johnson said.
African-Americans tend to be significantly more conservative on social and cultural issues than whites, particularly on homosexuality, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center. The study indicated that 40% of black respondents were socially conservative, compared to 26% of whites.
Some of the more successful black Republican candidates this year have tapped into African-American conservative religious activism more effectively than white candidates in the past.
Isaac Hayes, the GOP nominee seeking to knock out U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who has represented the 2nd District of Illinois for 15 years, is a youth minister at Chicago’s 20,000-member Apostolic Church of God—where President Barack Obama delivered a 2008 Father’s Day speech.
Mr. Hayes said he was drawn to the GOP during the administration of former President George W. Bush because of social issues, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Mr. Hayes emphasizes those stances in conversations with voters, many of whom are evangelical Christians who have tended to vote Democratic because of economic issues.
“It’s a really good opportunity for us because right now, black Americans realize that the Democratic Party has not represented our best interests,” Mr. Hayes said. “That doesn’t mean that Republicans have done everything right, but people are open to trying a different way.”
Nikki Haley, the Indian-American mother of two who won the runoff in South Carolina’s GOP gubernatorial primary this week, hit core conservative themes in her long-shot campaign—opposing health-care reform, taking a hard line on immigration and underscoring her conversion to Christianity. She is now the favorite to win the governorship in November. Ms. Haley would become the second child of Indian immigrants to be elected a governor in the U.S., joining Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was elected in 2007.
Other black Republican nominees considered viable in the November general election include Stephen Broden, a Dallas pastor running in the 30th District of Texas and Michael Faulkner, a former NFL player and pastor running in the 15th District of New York.
Yet even as the GOP scored successes this year with minority candidates, the overall perception of the party among black and Hispanic voters has fallen significantly. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 14% of black voters and 24% of Hispanic voters felt positively about the Republican party. That number is far below that of late 2000, when Republicans appeared to be gaining strength among some African-Americans and were seen positively by 20% or more.
Similarly, the sentiment of Hispanics, who were assiduously courted by Mr. Bush, has soured sharply as Republicans have led the charge for tougher policies on immigration. Support for the party fell to 24% in this weeks poll from levels that ranged from one-third to more than 40% in the first half of the decade.
The Rev. Joe Darby, senior pastor of Charleston, S.C.’s 3,000-member Morris Brown AME Church, said the nomination of Mr. Scott may change the face of the GOP but doesn’t represent a shift in appeal to most African-Americans. “I’m not going to hope my breath and think this is a brave new world for the Republican Party,” Mr. Darby said.
Mr. Steele, the RNC chairman, says 2010 will be a historic turnaround for the Republicans in building minority support around economic growth issues, even if only one or two black candidates ultimately win election to Congress.
“I had none,” Mr. Steele said. “If I get one, let alone three, that is the starting point of turning that page.”
Write to Valerie Bauerlein at firstname.lastname@example.org