Ironies will never get stranger than that a rock-ribbed conservative from South Carolina would bring Diversity with a capital D to the old, white, and male Republican party, but that is what Jim DeMint, now leaving the Senate for a think tank, has done. He and the Tea Party have supported some clunkers—Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010, and Richard Mourdock most recently—but thanks in part to him and to it the GOP will have in 2013 two Hispanic senators from two big states, two Hispanic governors from blue states that went for Obama, two governors from two deep Southern states who are children of Indian immigrants, two rising-star women in the House and the Senate, and Tim Scott, who now fills DeMint’s seat as the only black serving in that body, and the fifth to serve there since Reconstruction.
Before this, Scott had won the House seat representing Charleston and in the primary defeated the son of one of the state’s white former governors as well as the son of Strom Thurmond. When a daughter of Indian immigrants appoints a black man from a background of poverty over the children of two white grandees in the home of Fort Sumter, something has changed in the South, in South Carolina, and certainly in the Republican party, which, when totting up its list of potential national candidates for 2016 and beyond, finds white males in the minority for the very first time.
The Republicans (and the conservative movement) now have an assortment of stars who are female and/or minority, but far fewer overall female and minority elected officials, and have a hard time winning votes from nonwhites and from unmarried women. Democrats, on the other hand, win big among nonwhites and (single) women, and have many more nonwhite and female elected officials, but—with the exception of the president—have few among them who are standouts by any description. In short, there is a quality/quantity split that should perplex both parties.
Among the Hispanics in Congress, for instance, Democrats have 25 against 8 for Republicans. But Republicans have 4 minority governors (2 of them female) to 1 for the Democrats, the sole black who is now in the Senate, and 3 minority senators to the Democrats’ 1. Republicans need to draw more votes from nonwhites and women; Democrats need to find more who can run on a national ticket. Why does the GOP, which gets few votes from these factions, produce and accept so many as leaders, while the Democrats, who have so many votes (and so many B-listers) struggle to find real stars?
The Democrats’ problem was first tagged in late 2010 by Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal, after the Tea Party wave in the midterm elections deposited Reps. Scott and Allen West, Sen. Marco Rubio, and governors Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, and Nikki Haley (who appointed Scott to the Senate) on the GOP’s beach. It was true that the Republicans had only 13 blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans in state or national office compared with 75 for the Democrats; but the bulk of the latter were mayors of largely black cities, or congressmen from specially crafted minority districts, elected as representatives of that minority, by largely minority votes.
In passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, liberals not only struck down the rules that had kept blacks from voting, but added to them a new privilege in the process: the right to elect not merely someone who shared their opinions, but who shared their own background or race. To do this, they drained neighboring districts of their nonwhite voters, creating strange, convoluted electoral entities, guaranteed to elect blacks or Hispanics in perpetuity. (Republicans opposed this in principle, but backed it in practice, as carving out these safe seats for Democrats turned the surrounding districts into easier gets for themselves.) At first, this redistricting regime had the desired results, and caused a quick influx of nonwhites into Congress, but it also put a lid on their influence, and their potential to rise: Safe in their insular, one-party districts, they lacked the incentive to appeal to the diverse and more moderate voters who decide statewide and national races.
“The vast majority of black and Hispanic members hail from urban districts that don’t require crossover votes to win, or represent seats designed to elect minorities,” as Kraushaar wrote. “They are more liberal than the average Democrat, no less the average voter, making it more difficult to run statewide campaigns.” Nonwhite Republicans steer clear of these districts and choose to debut in more diverse venues, from which they emerge knowing how to talk to a much wider audience. Democrats find themselves locked in a ghetto, which offers the option of steady employment, but not too much opportunity to advance.