The Plight of the Minority Republican

I remember driving in my car on Election Day 2004, and Big John Thompson -- Georgetown coach, radio host, announcer, and a man with a voice so deep that it makes Johnny Cash sound like a soprano -- was on WTEM Sportstalk 980 talking to his white Democrat co-host, Al Koken, about how hard it is to vote for a Republican. Coach Thompson told the story of his voting experience earlier in the morning in his majority Democrat district, when he'd asked for the GOP sample ballot. The fur-coat wearing white woman standing in line in front of him huffed that she couln't believe she got that ballot, adding: Don't you know who you're voting for?

"Lady," I recall Coach Thompson saying, "my skin color doesn't mean I have to pull one lever. It's none of your business who I'm voting for."

Thompson pulled the lever for Bush, overwhelmingly because he doubted John Kerry's positions on national defense (as the coach has told Koken on more than one occasion: You don't fight "crazy" with board meetings or diplomacy: "you fight crazy with crazy.")

If exit polls are to be believed, more than a few minority voters followed the same reasoning (Bush pollster Matthew Dowd had more on this in a post-election memo). But as the elections of 2006 and 2008 near and the mismanagement of the post-war situation in Iraq becomes clear, Republicans are worried that four years of arguing for the just nature of military action is wearing thin. They worry that it won't be enough to convince the pro-American minority and immigrant voters to pull that lever again.

They have good reason to be worried.

Over the past few years, Republicans have made significant inroads in ethnic communities outside of their traditional white base largely because of disagreements between minority faith communities and liberal Democrats. Domestic policy issues like same-sex marriage and partial-birth abortion have helped bring more Latino and black churches into the fold, and the grassroots base of the party has done a better job of self-policing, breaking up the small pockets of neo-Confederates and race-baiters who've hung around since the pre-Reagan years. In many states, the tide has turned: in Louisiana's gubernatorial race, it was supporters of the Democrat -- not the Republican -- who ran a race-baiting ad in the final weeks of the campaign against now-Congressman Bobby Jindal.

Yet Republican leadership in Washington has missed some of the critical lessons of recent elections: they still seem to believe that minorities all care about the same issues, and for the same reasons.

In point of fact, the opposite is true. The ongoing and increasingly tense fight over immigration reform, which pits single-issue people like Congressman Tom Tancredo against the pro-globalism portion of the party and the GOP leadership, illustrates how Republican leaders are convinced that relaxing immigration standards or creating a form of earned amnesty for illegal immigrants is the best way to lock up the support of Hispanic voters.

But the truth is that Hispanics, like all minority communities, are hardly a monolithic group. While many Mexican and South American immigrant families would welcome a change in policy, my own Puerto Rican family simply doesn't care about the issue (since more people of Puerto Rican descent live on the American mainland than on the island now, that's hardly surprising). And members of Latino communities who have been in America for generations, and who had to go through difficult steps to earn their citizenship, see no reason why the standard should be lowered simply because businesses that currently depend on migrant workers want the taxpayers to pay for employee health care.

The best way for Republican leadership to reach out to minorities on domestic policy issues is to talk to them, to treat them as individuals who care about the economy, health and education. But don't adopt irresponsible positions on issues like immigration simply because the pollsters say it sells with the right demographics.

As Coach Thompson discovered, it's tough to be a minority who votes Republican. It's tougher still when the GOP leadership treats you like a statistic, not a constituent.

By Ben Domenech |  March 23, 2006; 02:15 PM ET | Email a Comment
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