It’s one of the most remarkable and under-reported stories of the current campaign season. The Republican Party, the presumed bastion of insensitive white males, has managed to field one of the most impressive arrays of women and minority candidates in US history. And to the chagrin of Democrats, most of these die-hard conservative candidates are expected to win on November 2. Their victory could well turn liberal “identity politics” on its head.
In New Mexico, Susana Martinez, a tough-talking district attorney and confirmed Palinista, is about to become the nation’s first Hispanic female governor. But you’d hardly know it from the dearth of media attention she’s received, compared, for example, to the extraordinary outpouring that accompanied President Obama’s appointment of Sonia Sotomayor as the nation’s first Hispanic female Supreme Court justice
Martinez enjoys overwhelming support from the state’s law enforcement associations. She also favors a crackdown on illegal aliens. And nearly half the state’s Hispanics support her, according to the liberal polling firm Latino Decisions. Most are American-born and long-settled, and they’re as concerned as anyone about drug wars on the border and unconstrained illegal migration — much Democratic frothing to the contrary.
And Martinez is far from alone. Almost a dozen, little-known Republican Hispanic candidates are running for House seats — like plucky Jaime Herrera in Washington State, who’s way ahead in the polls. If they win, and most probably will, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, currently comprised of 24 members, nearly all Democrats, will have to find room for a large group of GOP dissenters.
Meanwhile, a handful of feisty Republican women are running for the Senate, including the much-pilloried Sharron Angle in Nevada, who’s generated something close to feminist apoplexy by refusing to fold in the face of efforts to depict her as an extremist ditz. By not losing, she managed to win her debate with the nearly lifeless Harry Reid, and is pulling away in the latest polls.
And there are other gubernatorial candidates like Jan Brewer in Arizona and Tea Party favorite Nikky Haley in South Carolina. If Haley wins — and she’s still leading despite a furious smear campaign against her — she’ll become the second Indian-American governor — after the GOP’s Bobby Jindal in Louisiana — and the first female Indian-American governor.
Where are the Democrats? Nowhere. They’re too busy defending vulnerable incumbents to field serious ethnic and female candidates of their own. And some of those incumbents, in fact, are Hispanics, and women. Take, for example, Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). Her district is majority Latino but her constituents are upset with Obama over immigration reform, the economy, and joblessness — and they may not turn out to vote. And her GOP opponent, Van Tran, a conservative Vietnamese-American, represents a former refugee community whose ranks and influence are growing
So what does the jittery Sanchez do? She circulates an inflammatory campaign flyer warning of a possible “Vietnamese takeover” of her district. That’s astounding and inexcusable — especially coming from a woman who claims that Hispanics are under nationwide attack by Republican “nativists.” But such is the Democrats’ current desperation that even inter-ethnic race-baiting is welcomed as a viable get-out-the-vote tactic.
For Republicans, promoting dynamic ethnic candidates isn’t just a midterm gambit. As far back as Ronald Reagan, and certainly since George W. Bush, they’ve sensed the changing demographics of the US electorate. But their paradigm goes well beyond the Democrats’ narrow focus on the “black vote” or even the recently championed “Latino vote.”
Some 13% of America is foreign-born, and twice as many Americans have at least one parent that is foreign-born. Many are upwardly-mobile, patriotic, family-oriented, and “values-based”: in other words, they look and think like typical Republicans. Which means that despite their ethnicity, they don’t look to traditional ethnic patronage politics — and to the Democratic Party — to help them.
But that’s not all. While Democrats tend to think of ethnic communities as sources of new voters, the GOP has struck upon a more far-reaching truth: they also spawn great leaders. Their life stories embody the very essence of the American Dream, and that gives their political message enormous cross-over appeal.
That’s why you find Nikki Haley running in South Carolina, not in New York or Houston, with their large Indian-American communities. And Martinez hails from New Mexico, where brown and white cultures have blended for generations, and where most Hispanics don’t even speak Spanish, and sometimes resent those who do.
Florida’s Cuban-American Senate candidate Marco Rubio — perhaps the brightest of the GOP’s rising ethnic stars — has moved white audiences to tears with his heartfelt tributes to his working class parents and their many sacrifices on his behalf. Some conservatives have taken to calling him the “Republican Barack Obama.” No wonder the White House is so nervous.
Despite the constant barrage of criticism they’ll receive once in office, don’t expect these new GOP upstarts to falter. They’ve already survived difficult primary races, and even harder general election campaigns. And having changed the face of their party, they’re beginning to challenge long-held assumptions about the meaning of race and gender in US politics. Starting Tuesday, they may well change the way we think of ourselves as “Americans.”
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.