Erika Harold Could Be a GOP Star. First, Though, She’ll Have to Win

The former Miss America says she’s a “stronger fiscal conservative” than her Republican rival.

Illinois Republican congressional candidate Erika Harold campaigns at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 8, 2014.
Illinois Republican congressional candidate Erika Harold campaigns at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 8, 2014. DAVID SWERDLICK/THE ROOT

Harold told me that she’s “a stronger fiscal conservative” than her opponent, but on most issues, there’s not that much difference between them. “It’s a swing district,” though, Harold adds—that went for Obama in 2008 and evenly split between Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012—“so the person who wins for the party needs to be someone who both espouses conservative principles but can also attract a significant amount of independent voters and Democratic voters.”

Part of that crossover appeal, Harold says, begins with her grounding in the black church. She grew up attending predominantly African-American Salem Baptist Church—of which her grandmother is still a member—and she says that “one of the reasons why the Republican Party has a difficult time engaging the African-American community is that there isn’t a presence in nonelection cycles, and there isn’t as much of a substantive engagement within the community.” In her case, though, “there’s a track record of many years of involvement.”

To that end, Salem’s pastor, the Rev. Claude E. Shelby Sr., tells me that even though he votes “mostly” for Democrats, in this election he’s supporting Harold, who he believes “can bridge that gap” between Republicans and the majority of black voters.

They differ, though, on one critical area. Shelby said he’d “like to see her support Obamacare.” But like most Republicans, Harold opposes it, saying “it has not spurred the kind of economic growth or affordability of choice” that people were hoping for.

Which highlights the challenge for Harold, who seems, in some ways, to be exactly the kind of candidate who can narrow the gap between her party and a broader electorate, but whose position on major issues doesn’t merge neatly with most black voters or into any of today’s recognizable GOP lanes. Compared with other black female Republicans running for Congress this year, she’s neither a Tea Partier like Katrina Pierson nor an established politician like former Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mayor Mia Love.

Her platform falls somewhere between her party’s contemporary deficit hawkishness and the “compassionate” conservatism of President George W. Bush, for whom she campaigned in 2004.

When she talked about making Social Security “sustainable and solvent,” Harold sounded a lot like House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). And when she told me that she was against cutting Pell Grants—pointing out that “I feel very strongly that we have to provide some opportunities for people to be able to get the tools necessary to be in charge of their economic future”—she sounded like, well, Obama.

And although on most issues, she has a fairly standard Republican stance, Harold diverges from GOP boilerplate on the issue of discretionary spending, saying that her focus, instead, “would be on the nondiscretionary side,” and that when it comes to items like Head Start and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, “you’re getting down to programs where significant cuts are going to be felt” by constituents. “But when you’re looking at what’s really driving some of our debt issues,” she looks at entitlements, like Social Security, where she feels that “taking no steps at all” at reform “is tantamount to cutting those programs” down the road.

It’s a more nuanced view than what you hear from a typical first-time candidate. What’s less clear is how she might actually navigate her position around the entrenched position of the current Republican House caucus, which does advocate cuts in discretionary spending and didn’t bite last year when the president floated the idea of Social Security reform.

Mostly, what comes across is that Republicans could probably use Harold if they want someone who can reboot their message—not just based on who she is, but by figuring out the issues on which she has something in common with a broader range of voters. Even then, she’s not expected to win.

Shelby is confident, though. He says, “I think her chances are pretty good.”

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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