While Republicans made strides Tuesday in bolstering the number of minorities elected to public office, some conservatives cautioned the party against boasting of their gains because there’s still a long way to go to match the Democrats’ long-standing dominance with minority lawmakers.
“You have to be careful in touting that because it looks like you think all the work is over because you’ve got two [black] Republicans in the [House Republican] Conference … [but] there is a lot of things that go into putting ‘meat on the bones’ if you will,” said former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, the first black Republican House member from south of the Mason-Dixon Line since Reconstruction.
Insurance company owner Tim Scott will be the first black Republican congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, after easily winning in his conservative district. Mr. Scott, a 45-year-old state representative, earned a primary victory over the son of the one-time segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
In Florida, military veteran Allen West ousted a two-term Democrat to a House seat. He is the first black Republican elected to Congress from Florida since a former slave served two terms in the 1870s.
Also in the Sunshine State, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio became the second Republican Cuban-American elected to the Senate after Mel Martinez, who retired last year. Mr. Rubio easily defeated Democrat Rep. Kendrick B. Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist, who bolted the GOP in May to run as an independent after trailing Mr. Rubio in the polls.
Republican Nikki Haley, an Indian-American, was elected governor of South Carolina, while Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico became the first Hispanic woman to be elected governor in U.S. history. In Nevada, Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic and a former U.S. District Court judge, easily beat Democratic Rory Reid - son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - in the state’s gubernatorial race.
Several Hispanic Republican challengers scored victories over Democratic incumbents, including Bill Flores’ defeat of 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards and Francisco Canseco’s victory over Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, both in Texas. In Idaho, Raul Labrador beat Rep. Walt Minnick.
Republican Jaime Herrera also became Washington state’s first Hispanic representative in Congress by winning the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
“There is a stereotype that Latinos are Democrats, and they’re not necessarily Democrats,” said Patricia Guadalupe, spokeswoman with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. “We definitely can see by what happened yesterday that - just like everybody else - they represent all political ideologies.”
Ms. Guadalupe said the surge in Republican Hispanic candidates doesn’t mean Democrats are turning their backs on minorities but instead reflects growing acceptance of Hispanics in American society.
“This represents a political maturity of sorts that people understand that we’re not just of one political persuasion or of one political party,” she said.
Still, the gains pale in comparison to the Democratic Party who has more than 40 blacks and two dozen Hispanics in the sitting House and the sole Hispanic and black in the Senate. The nation’s two black governors are also Democrats.
Mr. Watts, who left the House in early 2003, was critical of Republican outreach to ethnic minorities, saying that Mr. Scott and Mr. West won Tuesday in spite of the party, not because of it.
“In 20 years I’ve been associated with the party, [minority outreach] has been given lip service,” he said. “There’s nobody in the [GOP] establishment that can point to these two candidates and say that they [helped them win] - or any of these [minority] candidates.”
Mr. Watts said it would be a mistake for the GOP and an “injustice” to Mr. Scott and Mr. West for the party to view them as prized tokens.
“Obviously, I think it was a good year for Republicans, but I think those guys are good candidates,” said Mr. Watts, who since leaving office has worked as a lobbyist.
The former congressman said while Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who is black, has tried to improve the party’s relationship with minorities, “if it’s not in the DNA of the institution then Chairman Steele is going to be limited as to what he can do.”
Not all minority Republicans were successful Tuesday, as several challengers were defeated by incumbent Democrats in House races, including Ryan L. Frazier, who is black, in Colorado, and Hispanics Eddie Zamora and Roy Morales in Texas.
Van Tran, a Republican Vietnamese-American, lost to Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez in California. Another Vietnamese-American, Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, a first-term Republican from a liberal New Orleans-area district, also was defeated.
While the success of Republican minority candidates Tuesday was a welcomed boost for the party, it’s too early to tell if it represents an anomaly or the beginning of a trend, said political expert Norm Ornstein.
“We honestly don’t know,” said Mr. Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.
c This story was based in part on wire service reports.
• Sean Lengell can be reached at email@example.com.
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