The historic election wins by Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares in Virginia showcased the increasing diversity among Republicans and the party’s success in recruiting women and minority candidates to deliver a conservative message of freedom and opportunity.
Ms. Sears, the first Black woman elected statewide in Virginia, and Mr. Miyares, the first Hispanic to win statewide in the commonwealth, swept into office with Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in a state that has been trending blue for more than a decade.
The result has been difficult for Democrats to digest. They have heralded themselves as warriors for minority communities and cherished opportunities to boast about breaking through glass ceilings.
Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that Barack Obama in 2008 became the first Democrat to carry Virginia on his way to becoming America’s first Black president.
Race and ethnicity issues largely fell by the wayside in this year’s campaigns. Ms. Sears and Mr. Miyares took that Democratic standby off the table and made the race more of an ideological fight.
Republicans say it is a winning formula for conservatives — and a problem for Democrats.
“When you look at some of these candidates, many of them have compelling stories,” said Republican strategist Jimmy Keady. “Whether they are women, minorities, self-made business owners, military veterans or others, they are normal people who got to where they are because of who they are. Both as Americans and through hard work, not because the government gave them a handout.”
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who helped Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe court Black voters this year in Virginia, said enlisting diverse candidates wasn’t the same as making inroads with voters of color.
“Just because they are diverse in race does not mean their priorities line up with the community that they look like. When you look at the policy agenda they advocate for, it definitely doesn’t line up with the community where I grew up,” he said.
Mr. Seawright said one candidate’s ethnic background “can’t apply to the whole GOP because we all know that’s not true.”
The national Republicans are convinced otherwise.
In 2020, the House Republicans’ shocking gains in elections were driven by female and minority candidates.
Republicans have made a concerted effort to recruit diverse candidates.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik’s Elevate PAC has raised more than $3 million to get more Republican women elected to Congress next year. She is set to announce a roster of 2022 candidates on Wednesday.
Catalyst PAC describes its mission as recruiting Republican congressional candidates “from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds which aren’t currently well-represented in the ranks of congressional Republicans.”
In Virginia, the Republicans embraced diversity but steered clear of identity politics. Ms. Sears didn’t run as a Black candidate, and she captured only 16% of the Black vote, according to exit polls.
Ms. Sears said she was on the leading edge of a “red wave” in a recent email from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm of House Republicans, which is bullish about its chances of flipping control of the lower chamber next year.
“Hey Fellow Conservative, it’s Winsome Sears, Republican, Marine Corps veteran, and Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor-Elect,” she says in the email, which includes a photograph of her trademark look wearing a skirt suit and holding an AR-15 rifle.
“I’ll be blunt — the Democrats didn’t think it could be done, but our recent Conservative VICTORY in Virginia has launched a HUGE RED WAVE across our nation. The Radical Left is quaking, Fellow Conservative,” she says in the email.
Ms. Sears, who was born in Jamaica, served as the first Black Republican woman and first female veteran in the state’s General Assembly. She has arguably broken more barriers than most others in her lifetime, but she mostly downplayed the race while advancing her political career.
“I’m telling you that what you are looking at is the American Dream,” Ms. Sears said in her election night speech. “In case you haven’t noticed, I am Black. And I have been Black all my life, but that’s not what this is about.”
Democrats have used race as a wedge issue in the past, but political analysts say it is harder to make it stick when running against candidates of color.
Ms. Sears, who represented the Norfolk area in the state legislature, ran as a conservative. She pushed for tax cuts and school vouchers and backed abortion restrictions. She promised to defend gun rights and support law enforcement by raising the pay of state troopers and police officers.
She also called for a historic investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which won praise from former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black governor.
Still, Ms. Sears quickly became the target of some liberal commentators and the hero of conservatives as her candidacy shaped a new generation of Republicans.
Former ESPN host Jemele Hill and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson have linked her to White supremacy.
Mr. Miyares called the charge “laughable” and added that such attacks are likely to drive more people to the Republican Party.
“I think what’s happened with Winsome is horrible,” Mr. Miyares said. “As the Democratic Party has gotten more secular and more far to the left and more woke, it’s driving people away towards the Republican Party.”
For some, the fact that Ms. Sears did not make race the centerpiece of her campaign is one of the more inspiring aspects of her win.
“I was very proud when she said that she doesn’t want to be recognized as that first Black lady elected as a lieutenant governor,” said Astrid Gamez, 60, of Reston, Virginia. “She has [achieved] the American dream. That’s something very remarkable: that you can do whatever you want in this country if you work hard.”
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
Correction: An honorific for Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears in a previous version of this article was incorrect.