With all the postelection buzz about historic firsts and trailblazing black Republicans crashing Congress, you’d think this was the first time conservatives of color would be stepping foot on the floor of the House of Representatives.
As a matter of fact, it’s not.
Yet as three black Republicans found themselves elected Nov. 4 in a red-state blaze of glory, their very public profiles remain shrouded in racial contradictions and Tea Party allegory. It was the history that almost flew under the polling radar until the dust settled a day later.
A night of Republican waves found Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) appointment now bona fide and validated as the first elected African-American senator from the South since the 1880s. In the nearly blackless and very Mormon state of Utah, Mia Love, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born mayor of Saratoga Springs, finally got her wish, becoming the first African American from her state and the first Haitian American elected to Congress. And deep in the very Hispanic part of Texas, black man Will Hurd just destroyed three decades of Latino-male political rule.
Electing black people to Congress is no longer a novel affair—despite the understandable worry from advocates who believe that it could become one if the political map gets redder and voting rights melt away. Still, there are now 43 black members of Congress in the House, in addition to two more in the Senate. With Hurd and Love in the mix, that will be 47 in the 114th Congress, the most we’ve ever seen at any one time.
If it’s any consolation to black Democrats scrambling to assess their relevancy on increasingly hostile political terrain, the black Republican bump just increased black representation in the House to a full 10 percent—3 percentage points fewer than the black proportion of the entire U.S. population.
A Challenge for the CBC
However, these black Republicans will be different: They won’t be taking classically black positions on the issues, which could create some heartburn for the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus, the group feeling a bit more under siege since it watched its party collapse in last week’s midterms. While the 43-member caucus will break left, the two new GOP additions will jump right—thereby ensuring some lively strategic discussions on the fate of black America.
“The CBC welcomes all new African-American members to join the caucus, which has always been the case,” is as much as outgoing CBC Chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) will say on it. Reluctant to pour any lighter fluid on the campfire, Fudge may be anxiously navigating a surreal Ohio landscape in which 26 percent of her state’s black voting base just helped re-elect a white Republican governor and presumptive GOP presidential candidate.
Scott is, for the most part, expected to continue his quiet and creeplike ascent atop the conservative ecosystem. His skillful and rather quick transitions from the South Carolina Statehouse to the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate demonstrate nothing short of kung fu-grandmaster political savvy—along with a finger-flipping but polite “No, thank you” to a CBC invite along the way. He will continue to draw the futile ire of home-state old guards like senior Democratic leader Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, but if he continues playing his cards right, he’ll be well-positioned for leadership slots far beyond 2016.
It’s the two new black Republicans in the House who are bound to get the most play from probing black political observers looking for a scoop.
Both are from conspicuously nonblack congressional districts—and if both join the CBC, it’s that demographic data point that will set them apart in very real and volatile ways. They will be part of an organization that prides itself on black representation, but they will really have no political obligation to that mission because of the constituents they’ll be largely representing.