(The Root) — If you don't know who T.W. Shannon is yet, you will.
Sworn in as speaker of the Oklahoma State House of Representatives in January, Shannon will appear at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee convention Saturday on a panel of "10 Conservatives Under 40" as part of conservatives' efforts to broaden their appeal after the GOP's poor showing nationally in the 2012 election.
Only 35, he's on the rise, and one of the young black officials who represent a reboot — a Generation 2.0 — of conservatives of color, whom the Republican Party will certainly need if it wants to connect with voters of color in future elections in a way that an older generation of black and Latino Republicans haven't been able to. Even though CPAC didn't invite the presumably too-moderate Gov. Chris Christie — its leader insists the party is "not a home for everybody" — and the conference still holds gay GOProud and Log Cabin Republicans at arms' length, its recognition that Republicans have to open up their tent flap is an opportunity for Shannon and other conservatives of color.
In comparison to other black Republicans, Shannon avoids both the blandness of Michael Steele and the bluster of Allen West. He's a good fit for CPAC, because he knows how to walk the fine line between establishing himself as a model of what Republicans seem to hope will be a more diverse party while still accentuating his broader appeal.
And after talking to him, it's clear why his Republican State House colleagues selected him as their leader: He unapologetically talks about his particular brand of conservative principles. He touts his A rating from the National Rifle Association and supports Gov. Mary Fallin's decision to turn down the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion funds, calling Obamacare "another one-size-fits-all mandate from D.C." Just last week a bill he authored that implements a 20 hours per week work requirement for some food-stamp recipients passed the Oklahoma House. "This measure will help able-bodied people break their addiction to government subsidies," he remarked at the time.
In all this, Shannon comes across as someone who's ready for the national spotlight, which is very likely in his future, considering that Oklahoma is a solidly red state.
I had a chance to talk to Shannon about his role in trying to reverse a trend in which 71 percent of Latinos, 73 percent of Asian Americans and 93 percent of African Americans voted for President Barack Obama and Democrats in 2012. And while he was very clear that the GOP needs to revamp its message, he was less specific about the policies Republicans can put forward that will resonate with a more diverse constituency.
Shannon said, "We cannot allow our party to become the party of old white men. If we're going to win elections moving forward, not only do we have to focus on outreach to minorities, but where we've got an even bigger gap is with younger voters." And he described the GOP's problem by citing his mentor, former Rep. J.C. Watts, who told him that, in his view, too often "Republicans are comfortable being right on the issues — we're right on life issues, we're right on tax issues, we're right on choice/educational issues — but it's not enough to be right; you've got to be able to communicate your message."
In a nutshell, that's the three-legged stool of black conservatism — school choice, pro-life and anti-tax — but, so far, it's not a platform that's swayed many voters of color in recent elections.
Shannon offered some skepticism about the social safety net, saying that within "our disenfranchised, socioeconomically challenged minority groups" he can point to those "who will tell you that dependence on government doesn't work. It doesn't lead to prosperity, it doesn't lead to empowerment — it leads to dependence on government," and described his belief that "the Republican message about personal responsibility" and "strong families — those are the things that are going to impact minority communities and start to turn this thing around."
But when asked whether he really thinks that anyone, Democrat or Republican, disagrees with the ideas of personal responsibility or strong families, he countered that "I'm not one of these guys that believes that every social program or every social initiative is wrong," but at the same time says programs "that encourage people to work have a much better and greater outcome than those that simply offer them a subsidy or handout."
On the potentially sore subject of Mitt Romney, Shannon said that "our big challenge nationally was, frankly, last time we didn't have a candidate that really energized the conservative base." Noting that while "Romney was a great, obviously, business guy," he added, "I do think he had a hard time connecting with the average guy, period."
On the subject of the president, when I suggested that Obama is as conservative as Gen. Colin Powell or former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), who preceded Obama as the lone black man in the Senate, Shannon rejected the idea, pointing to the national debt and Obama's "assault on religious liberty," saying Sen. Obama was, at the time, "the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate," and despite the doubling of the Dow, the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts, Shannon says Obama has "governed as just that — a liberal."
Shannon wrote off Obama's appeal as mostly based on "the fact that he was the first African American," saying, "his election to office was something that a lot of people marveled at."
And as for the conservatives coming to CPAC, Shannon said his message will be that "we're going to be reforming this country. It's probably going to happen in the halls of state government, in the 50 states — not in Washington, D.C."
Part Chickasaw, Shannon says his heritage is "a part of who I am," but points out that "my goal as speaker of the House is to make policy for all of Oklahoma." And though he says he's always carried the black vote in his district, and he's active in his predominantly black church, he pretty much summed up his outlook with a message tailor-made for the faithful who'll be at CPAC:
"In Oklahoma, we're conservative — I don't care who you are."
Whether Shannon improves GOP prospects with voters of color remains to be seen. But don't be surprised to see him run statewide or on a national ticket. Sooner, perhaps, than you might think.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.