Surprise! The Tea Party Is Making the GOP More Diverse

The movement helped elect a string of minorities and has vaulted an African-American candidate to the top of the Republican presidential primary

Herman Cain at NV debate - Mike Carlson AP - banner.jpg

Herman Cain, an African-American former pizza-chain executive who has never held elected office, sits atop the polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Most people never saw it coming, but perhaps they should have.

Cain's rise in the polls has been fueled primarily by the tea party, a movement that--intentionally or not--has diversified the Republican Party, helping to elect a string of high-profile minorities who have become national stars on the right. And it wasn't easy. The emergence of conservative sensations such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Cain took place in the face of active resistance from the Republican establishment.

After the 2010 wave election, Republicans saw the number of minorities in their ranks in Congress and governors' mansions jump from three to 14. And most of these candidates, from Rep. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina to Rep. Raul Labrador in Idaho, caught a tailwind of antiestablishment fervor.

The biggest roadblocks to these challengers often were within their own party. The unlikely rise of Rubio is the exemplar. The son of Cuban immigrants and the former Florida House speaker, Rubio ran against Charlie Crist, then the state's Republican governor and a well-known, well-financed pol who enjoyed deep establishment ties. Upon kicking off his campaign in May 2009, Crist was bestowed with the apotheosis of an establishment endorsement when he received the blessing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But what was initially perceived as a boon would later be viewed as something of a death knell for the early front-runner. Opponents portrayed Crist as the prototypical GOP insider. The combination of animosity directed at his moderate positions and ties to President Obama only helped Rubio's conservative, outsider pitch pick up speed.

"Despite some of the caricatures that are out there, Republican primary voters are color-blind," said Alberto Martinez, an early Rubio backer. "They care about issues."

If tea party voters don't regard race as a factor in their electoral decisions, it's not because the movement itself is racially diverse; many minority voters recoil from the tea party's emphasis on shrinking government. According to a CBS News poll taken last October, 93 percent of self-identified tea party supporters were white. But that doesn't mean they are unwilling to elect minority candidates who share their values.

Among the 87 Republican freshmen elected to the House in 2010, two, Scott and Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), are black. Before this year, no black Republican had served in Congress since 2003, when Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired. Both Scott and West rode a wave of tea party enthusiasm to unlikely victories. Scott, who was selected for a freshman leadership position, won a contested primary over Paul Thurmond, the son of former Sen. Strom Thurmond.

West's victory is even more revealing. He ran in 2008 but lost to Democratic Rep. Ron Klein by nearly 10 points. In a rematch against Klein in 2010, in a very different climate, the outspoken and at times controversial Republican reversed his fortunes.

Presented by

Kevin Brennan & Sean Sullivan

Kevin Brennan is a staff writer (politics) for National Journal Hotline. Sean Sullivan is the editor of Hotline On Call.

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