Since its inception, the Republican Party has been led by a collection of old White guys. When African-American Michael Steele became the new face of the Republican Party, it was a welcome change and announced a new direction for the party. Yet many worried that Steele was merely the exception that proved the rule.
Yesterday’s landslide victory for Republicans may be the big story, but lost in that headline is the fact that the Republicans elected a number of candidates outside the usual white, male stereotype. With the election of Marco Rubio, Susanna Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Nikki Haley, Mary Fallin, Kelly Ayotte, Tim Scott and Allen West, the Republican Party is starting a move towards looking more like America.
Marco Rubio, a second-generation Cuban American, was elected Senator in Florida, fending off both the Democrat opponent but also a run by independent Charlie Crist. In Nevada, while Democrat Harry Reid held on to his Senate seat, Republican Brian Sandoval defeated Reid’s son to become the state’s first Hispanic governor. In nearby New Mexico, Susana Martinez became the first female governor of her state and the first Latina governor in the country.
Allen West’s win in South Florida’s 22nd Congressional District makes him the first African-American Republican to represent Florida in Congress since the 1870s. Similarly, in South Carolina, Tim Scott — who defeated Strom Thurmond’s son — became the first African-American Republican to represent that state in Congress since the Reconstruction. Speaking about their historic wins, Timothy F. Johnson, the founder and chairman of The Frederick Douglass Foundation, told an interviewer last night that “we can say with pride that America is a diverse and unique country. Its people are not monolithic looking, thinking, or voting.” But in an effort to deflect attention away from race and on to policy, he added, “The best candidates won, and that includes the black Republicans who will take their seats in the U.S. House of Representatives January 2011.”
Nikki Haley, of South Carolina, and Mary Fallin, of Oklahoma, became the first female governors of their states. Haley, an Indian-American, became the second Republican of Indian heritage to win a major election, joining Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Kelly Ayotte adds her name to the growing list of female Republican senators which also includes likely write-in winner Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, and Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. While they were unsuccessful in their bids last night, other women running as Republicans included former CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California and Tea Party favorite, but polarizing, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
Before yesterday’s election, Republican Party chairman Steele discussed his party’s move towards greater diversity, running ten African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and more than 100 women for Congress. “I think we’ve made great strides in that regard.” He added a hopeful note, “I think we will see – and have seen over the course of the past year – more and more people of color, people of diverse backgrounds, identifying with our party.”
Yesterday’s results were a small step in that direction. Only time will tell if the Republicans can build on these new faces and bring more people of color and more women under their tent.