When the new Congress meets in January, it will include a record number of black, Latino, female and LGBTQ members. But that expansion of diversity came largely within the Democratic Party. Among Republicans, the opposite is true: the number of female, black and/or Latino Republican members will be smaller in the 116th Congress (2019-2021) than it was in the 115th Congress (2017-2019).
Perhaps most notably, only one African American Republican — Rep. Will Hurd of Texas — will be seated in the new House. In her Nov. 26 concession speech, Mia Love, the only black female Republican ever to serve in Congress, declared sharply that her loss will hurt her party’s ability to reach out to minority communities:
Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington, because they do take them home, or at least make them feel like they have a home.
Our own research suggests that Mia Love’s suspicions about minority partisanship are correct. In particular, we find that African Americans often join the political party of black elected officials.
Here’s how we did our research
Using data from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we tested whether black candidates influence which party other African Americans identify with.
We started by seeing whether more blacks said they were Democrats after 2008, when Barack Obama was first elected president. In the two years between 2006 and 2008, blacks became significantly more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. In 2006, 62 percent of blacks identified as Democrats. In 2008, 76 percent identified as Democrats. That’s a 14 percentage point increase in black Democratic partisan identification. We used a statistical model to confirm that the shift was not accounted for by other factors, like demographics or ideology.
Of course, the president is the nation’s top elected official; witnessing the election of the first black president might have especially strong effects. We wanted to measure what happens with officials elected to lower offices, as well as what happens when the black candidate is a Republican.
Although there are few black Republican candidates, using the 2010 CCES, we looked at two congressional districts that elected black Republicans to the House of Representatives: South Carolina’s 1st District, where Tim Scott won; and Florida 22nd District, where Alan West did.
No blacks identified with the Republican Party in these districts in 2006 or 2008. But in 2010, after Scott and West won, 13 percent of black respondents in these districts identified as Republican. Moreover, black independents were 9 percent more likely to identify as leaning Republican in these districts in 2010 than blacks in the same districts two and four years earlier. These are small numbers from a relatively small sample, suggesting we should interpret the data with caution. However, this shift in partisanship toward the Republican Party in these districts is of a similar magnitude as blacks’ movement toward the Democratic Party after Obama won in 2008.
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We also find the same movement toward the GOP when we examine shifts in black partisanship using a scale of partisanship that ranges from 1 (“Strong Democrat”) to 7 (“Strong Republican”).
When black officials are elected, more African Americans identify with that party — whether Republican or Democratic
Collectively, these results suggest that electing black officials may improve either party’s standing among African Americans. Love’s warning about the lack of black Republicans in Congress may indeed be on target.
As Love suggests, and as we and others argue, party diversity matters in part because even if voters agree with a party’s policies, they are unlikely to join if they don’t see individuals like themselves represented in the political organization. This display of inclusion may be particularly important for the Republican Party, which has over the years alienated some racial and ethnic minorities through racially divisive campaigns and advocacy of policies that many believe oppose minority interests.
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With Love gone, the only black Republicans in the 116th Congress will be Scott — now a senator from South Carolina — and Hurd, making it harder for Republicans to appeal to African Americans. That’s especially true at a time that the party is increasingly uniting around President Trump, known for his racially charged rhetoric and hostile positions toward minorities.
The Republican Party’s lack of minority representation could be a problem for its electoral fortunes in the near future. We saw a glimpse of this in November’s midterm election.
One way that Republicans could begin to bring racial and ethnic minorities back to the party would be to devote more resources into increasing their congressional delegation’s diversity.
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Christopher T. Stout is assistant professor of political science at Oregon State University, and author of “Bringing Race Back In: Black Politicians, Deracialization, and Voting Behavior in the Age of Obama” (University of Virginia Press, 2014).
Jennifer R. Garcia (@JGarciaForrest) is assistant professor of politics at Oberlin College.