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

There’s a young, multiracial Harvard lawyer running for Congress in Illinois.

But it’s not 2000, and she’s not Barack Obama.

And while former Miss America Erika Harold would almost surely resist the comparison—particularly a week out from primary election day—it’s hard not to notice the biographical similarities between her and the president, even though she’s a self-described “constitutional conservative” running to unseat incumbent GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, and hoping to sit on the opposite side of the aisle from Obama’s party in the House of Representatives.

The 33-year-old has that same political star potential; she got the Chicago Tribune’s endorsement; and she’s endorsed by former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka, a Republican who once said that the “biggest mistake I ever made” was not running against Obama for Senate in 2004.

What she doesn’t have is official GOP backing.

She never got the chance to take her case directly to voters in 2012, because a committee of GOP county chairmen selected Davis, ahead of Harold and one other candidate, to fill an outgoing congressman’s open general-election ballot slot. Controversy ensued in the run-up to this year’s race, when a Davis supporter referred to Harold as, among other things, a “street walker” who works “for some law firm that needs to meet their quota for minority hires.”

Advertisement

The national party is sitting it out for now, with a Republican National Committee representative saying, simply, that “whoever wins the primary and enters the general election as our nominee has our full support.” Which makes sense, up to a point. But for a party professing to go all out in its efforts to appeal to African Americans, young voters and women, it seems a little as if the RNC is opting to punt on third down.

So Harold—whose campaign only had $137,000 on hand in March, compared with more than $1 million for Davis—has to try winning with the ground game. And that’s where I caught up with her, at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where she was named one of CPAC’s 2014 “10 Under 40” and where she barnstormed around the convention, meeting and talking to conservative activists and giving a brief speech on the main stage—where she came off a tad gauzy at first—expressing a somewhat generic “desire to see constitutional principles restored to our government.” But when she recounted her experience volunteering in prison ministry, and delivering “the very simple, powerful message of God’s love and redemption” to women inmates, it was a big hit with the conservative crowd:

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.”

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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