Mitt Romney’s abysmal showing among women and minorities last year triggered no shortage of warnings that Republicans had better adapt to changing demographics — or pay the price at the ballot box for decades to come.
House Republicans apparently got the message. Bent on changing their image as the party of graying white men, they’re seeking out candidates for competitive races in next year’s midterm who reflect America’s growing diversity.
Next year’s crop of Republican congressional hopefuls includes Carl DeMaio, an openly gay former city councilman who is running for a seat in urban San Diego. There is Elise Stefanik, a 29-year-old former George W. Bush aide who is trying to topple a Democratic incumbent in upstate New York. In South Florida, Carlos Curbelo, a school board member and former congressional aide, is running in a district where Hispanics make up a majority of voters.
It’s unlikely that the GOP’s group of 2014 candidates will be anywhere near as diverse as the one their Democratic opponents will field. But, for the GOP — eager to modernize its image as a party dominated by white men — there’s little doubt that it represents an improvement from previous, more homogenous, recruitment classes.
The Cook Political Report currently lists 40 competitive congressional districts where a Republican incumbent is not seeking reelection. In at least 10 of those races, a female, minority or openly gay GOP candidate is waging a credible campaign. And Republicans say that, as candidate recruitment season comes to a close early next year, they expect those numbers to grow.
“This isn’t your grandfather’s Republican Party,” North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, who is heading up recruiting for the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote in an email. “We are heading into 2014 with an extremely diverse field of candidates who are helping Republicans reach out to new voters and expand our message. They all share one thing in common — they can win their districts.”
The push to recruit a diverse class of hopefuls comes at a particularly sensitive time for Republicans. Prior to the 2012 election, several Republican Senate candidates came under fire for making comments about rape that were widely perceived as insensitive to women. On Election Day, exit polling showed Romney capturing just 44 percent of the female vote, just over a quarter of the Hispanic vote and just 7 percent of the black vote.
In March, the Republican National Committee released a detailed autopsy that found the GOP was viewed as a party of “stuffy old men” and urged it to take steps to soften its edges with women, minorities and gays.
The GOP’s membership in Congress has reinforced its image as a party dominated by white males. According to David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report, 206 of the 232 members who compose the House Republican Conference — 89 percent — are white men. That’s in stark contrast to House Democrats, of whom a majority are, for the first time in history, nonwhite men.
At the state level, too, Republicans are trying to make strides. After losing 46 female state legislators in 2012, the Republican State Leadership Committee has launched an initiative aimed at recruiting and supporting 300 female candidates. It is part of a $6 million plan to seek out contenders who, a spokesman for the group said, “reflect America’s full diversity.”
“The perception of the party is that it is older, white and male-dominated,” said Nicole McCleskey, a New Mexico-based Republican pollster who is a veteran of congressional and state legislative races. “There is an effort to change that and to make it feel more like average America. It’s a perception issue.”
Democrats scoff. They argue that no matter which candidates the GOP recruits, the party won’t be able to obscure its record on issues of central importance to women and minorities. Democrats have already begun re-using a mantra they adopted ahead of the 2012 election, as Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock drove headlines for the remarks on rape — the Republicans are waging a war on women.
“Republicans have a tough sell job to get diverse candidates to run as Republicans when their party opposes equal pay for women, blocks immigration reform, and cheers the end of the Voting Rights Act,” said Jesse Ferguson, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s deputy executive director.
Republicans have a particular interest in fielding female candidates. Among the party’s hopefuls is Charlotte Lane, an attorney who is running for an open seat in West Virginia, and Wendy Rogers, a retired Air Force officer from Arizona. There is also Darlene Senger, a state representative who is trying to oust a Democratic Rep. Bill Foster in a district that encompasses part of the Chicago suburbs.
Senger said: as the campaign develops, she would highlight her gender. She said it would be an asset in a race for a Democratic-leaning seat in which women make up a majority of voters.
“I think it’s going to be a natural part of my campaign,” she said. “I know the struggles that occur [for women] on a day-to-day basis.”
Some of the diverse Republicans are making second tries after falling short last year. Mia Love, the African-American mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. In Arizona, Martha McSally, a retired Air Force officer, is expected to launch a campaign after narrowly losing to Democratic Rep. Ron Barber.
In Massachusetts, Richard Tisei, an openly gay former state Senate minority leader, is also preparing to run again. Last year, campaigning as a moderate Republican in a district President Barack Obama won by double digits, he lost by less than 5,000 votes to Democratic Rep. John Tierney.
Tisei called the GOP diversity push important, saying that it would help the party expand beyond its Southern base into parts of the country dominated by Democrats.
“We’ve become a more regional party, and I think people understand that,” he said. “But we’re not going to be a national party unless we’re represented by every region in the country.”