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.
Hurd and Love Under Scrutiny
Hurd’s majority-Latino district is lucky if it’s 3 percent black; Love’s spot is Salt Lake-state white. Both have heavy Tea Party connections that have catapulted them from obscurity, perhaps the only resourced political network that was willing to give them a shot at serious congressional bids. Hurd is the son of a black dad and white mom and was, obviously, as close to passing as South Asian as the CIA could get when they hired him to collect intel undercover throughout Taliban-infested war zones.
Love is the politically prolific daughter of Haitian immigrants pressed to prove American roots. She joins a growing list of high-profile conservative icons and migrant kids who paint themselves publicly red when they grow up: See Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.).
We don’t know much about the mysterious Hurd, since he plays it low-key like Scott. “I don’t know if he’ll be a Tea Party member, but I don’t think he’ll be an establishment member, either,” Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak recently mused to National Review. Not yet returning The Root’s call for comment, Hurd is as light on policy flavor as he is on details about his Homeland-like adventures as an undercover CIA hack in Pakistan.
A trip to his website is an almost laughable step into subterfuge: His policy “Issues” page is a 117-word menu of talking-point flavors, unless you head into one last page of “Facts vs. Lies,” in which the young, dashing cybersecurity consultant dazzles the reader with punchy Texan retorts. What we can glean from Hurd’s campaign is a mastery at messaging to politically illiterate masses. He gets it: Elections are nothing more than popularity contests, and less filling always tastes great.
Unlike Hurd, Love is like Tina Turner’s Mad Max character eager for a Thunderdome entrance. She eagerly awaits the polarizing clash of ideological titans within the marble halls of Congress and is already wading her way into choppy racial waters. “Well, first of all, I think what we need to mention here is this has nothing do with race,” was Love stepping into it on CNN the day after. “Understand that Utahans have made a statement that they’re not interested in dividing Americans based on race or gender.”
This aligned perfectly, albeit less aggressively, with her raucous 2012 Deseret News interview in which she swore to “join the Congressional Black Caucus and try to take that thing apart from the inside out” while surgically destroying the departments of Education and Energy as she went on a Joan of Arc crusade to return health care back to the states. Love’s spokeswoman, Evelyn Everton, declined The Root’s request for an interview, saying that Love is “swamped with media.”
However, if Love, during her trip to Washington, finds herself mired in a stalkerlike obsession with the CBC, the newly minted congresswoman could go the way of short-termed black Republican representatives before her, such as Allen West. In that case, West chose “Did he just say that?” talk show feistiness over actual legislating, a habit that quickly grew old with his fed-up Florida district.
The jury is still sequestered on the question of Love: Is she headed to Capitol Hill to make a point about race, blacks and Democrats, or is she going to bring legislative bacon back to her district? It’s not as if Love won by an overwhelming margin, besting her Democratic opponent by less than 4 percentage points.
Problems will emerge because black Republicans are predictably paraded as shiny examples of a brand-new day in GOP outreach. Modern, post-Reconstruction history has not been kind to their lot—unless, of course, you’ve hit the jackpot like the spectacularly crafty Scott. No black Republican in the 20th-century House has served more than four terms, and there’s only been one instance in the 21st century when there were two serving at the same time: the one-terming West and the one-term Scott, who ended up with a Senate promotion.
While, theoretically, it’s simply smart politics to have some level of black influence leveraged in both the Democratic and Republican parties (since the all-eggs-in-one-basket approach isn’t working out all that well at the moment), there is no instance—yet—of a modern black Republican candidate being elected by a majority-black congressional district. No one can claim a serious pivot until that happens. Cognitive dissonance remains between black Republican dreams and black American reality, a discussion that continues to slide into nasty family exchanges over group identity and direction. This should be fun to watch.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.