When Barack Obama won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Illinois, progressives and minority Democrats rejoiced. Still, the considerable hype over his primary victory underscored the dearth of minority officeholders in either party. While there are several minorities in the U.S. House of Representatives (who are mostly Democrats), it may eventually be easier for minorities to win high profile offices as Republicans rather than Democrats. African American Reps. often win reelection handily, but still have no hope of winning a statewide office due to their gerrymandered minority districts. The problem with heavily minority districts is that their Congressional Representatives don’t need to build bridges with white voters to win elections. These districts do reliably produce minority Congressmen, but with what effect? Minority politicians spend their careers in the House, when they could represent the next generation of Senators, Governors, and Presidents. While Reps. like Bobby Scott, Harold Ford, and Shelia Jackson Lee represent a strong base for minority Democrats, will they ever get a chance at statewide office? Gary Locke of Washington is a notable exception and has had a career that other minority politicians may seek to emulate. While Democrats may boast Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman to make the national ticket, the Republicans may be the first of the two major parties to actually deliver a woman or minority to the White House. Here’s why:
The GOP is doing everything it can to attract minorities and progress is already being made. President Bush’s cabinet is arguably the most diverse in American history for a good reason. The Republicans know that they cannot continue to hold majorities in both chambers and the Presidency unless they increase the number of minorities in their party. Republican minorities cannot usually rely on their ethnic base to vote for them, so they instead spend more time reaching out to white voters. While this strategy often leads to “sell out” chants from the left, it is an arguably more successful strategy for winning statewide office. In most states, the minority vote is not large enough to win a statewide election. So minority politicians need to work extra hard to win white votes. And it is possible.
Take Bobby Jindal for example, the 30 something Indian American whiz kid who nearly won the Governor’s mansion in Louisiana in 2003 after receiving a large number of white votes and an embarrassingly low amount of black votes. After a narrow loss to Kathleen Blanco, Jindal didn’t miss a beat and is embarking on the second campaign of his short career. Now well positioned to be the second Indian American ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jindal emphasized his conservative views along with his Christian faith to win an impressive share of the vote in a state that was more associated with David Duke’s Senate challenge than racial equality. While Jindal’s detractors decry his conversion to Christianity and his American nickname (his real name is Piyush), Jindal is exactly the type of politician the GOP wants to showcase. He is brown skinned, conservative, an impressive policy wonk, and a committed family man.
It may seem counterintuitive to argue that while the Democratic Party is the preferred home for most minority groups, the Party has been less than successful in promoting minorities for statewide office. This phenomenon can be partially explained by the Democratic Party’s strategy towards minority voters. By emphasizing affirmative action, hate crime laws, and other narrowly tailored “minority friendly” policies, the Democrats treat minority voters as a discrete bloc of voters that need to be pandered to, rather than integrating their concerns into broader themes that all voters can relate to. As a result, there is significant competition among minority groups for power in the Democratic Party rather than a coherent discussion about issues that impact poor, rural whites and urban minorities. The upshot is that many whites that would naturally vote Democrat instead support Republicans and Republican policies that are at odds with their economic interests. The Democrats are in the perfect position to articulate a new progressive vision for all Americans; whether they can do it remains to be seen.
This post has nothing to do with which party best represents the interests of minorities. It is clear that the Democrats have more minority office holders than the GOP at the national level. The question is which party offers the best chance for upward mobility? There are likely to be more Bobby Jindals coming up through the ranks of the Republican Party in the years to come. If I had to place my bets, I would look for a conservative Latino, perhaps from Texas or Florida, to lead the next generation of GOP politicians.