Grand Old (white) Party: How Republicans just blew a shot to broaden their reach

Party calls its demographic destiny "scary," then picks two more white men as its leaders. Here's the real problem

Published June 23, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul                                                                            (Jeff Malet, Brandon)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul (Jeff Malet, Brandon)

Late last week, the Republican Party elected two more middle-aged white men to its leadership, and one thing became abundantly clear: This is going to be a slow death.

“This is a real scare,” Ed Gillespie said of the party’s demographic failures in the 2012 presidential election. “And when you project forward, it just gets scarier.”

Gillespie should know. He, too, is a card-carrying member of the country club. He formerly served as Republican National Committee chairman and advised Mitt Romney’s failed White House bid.

But in the aftermath of Romney’s defeat, strategists like Gillespie saw the writing on the wall: The GOP needed to rethink it’s messaging strategy (or lack thereof), especially when it came to women, Hispanics and African-Americans.

The supposed “autopsy report” delivered by RNC chairman Reince Preibus in March 2013 concluded that voters see the GOP as a “scary” group of “stuffy old men” who are “out of touch” with an increasingly diverse country. Indeed, 91 percent of congressional Republicans are white males, and its leadership has the dubious honor of remaining 100 percent white.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a 49-year-old Republican from California, became the House majority leader in the mid-session ballot necessitated by Eric Cantor's humbling defeat in this month’s Virginia primary. McCarthy's promotion opened up the No. 3 spot for whip, which was filled by Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise.

Scalise, who leads a powerful faction of conservatives in the House Caucus, was boosted by a concerted effort to elect a leader from a red state. Until now, the GOP’s leadership has been dominated by lawmakers from blue states, despite the party's stronghold in the South.

In fact, he becomes the first Republican from a red state to take a leadership role since President Obama came into office. The Washington chattering classes opine that Scalise’s election will provide House Speaker John Boehner political coverage on tough votes. But it also underscores a party in peril, as Scalise is aligned to the far-right intransigence, obstinacy and anti-government sentiment that have come to characterize GOP politics in the Obama era.

In the past, Scalise has opposed funding the government and extending the debt ceiling – political wars that have been waged as a way to undermine Obama’s ability to govern, but have also made Republicans increasingly unpopular with mainstream voters.

Why does this matter?

Scalise’s ascendance appears to represent the GOP’s doubling down on its strategy to win not by growing its coalition from without — with women and Hispanics — but rather by reinforcing the conservative base from within, solidifying its coalition of white voters from the South and Midwest.

Boehner, McCarthy and Scalise do not reflect the face of the broader American electorate, but they do reflect the average Republican voter. And Scalise, 48, represents the Southern establishment who are just as conservative as their parents and grandparents were. As Nate Cohn of the New York Times recently explained, though white Southerners have been voting Republican for decades, the gap has increased significantly under Obama’s tenure and it appears to be largely a matter of race.

“Southern politics are deeply polarized along racial lines,” Cohn writes. “It is no exaggeration to suggest that … Republicans are the party of whites.”

It’s no surprise that Scalise infamously resorted to race-baiting tactics during his 2008 election, during which he exploited racial sentiments by running a series of advertisements against his Democratic opponent, which featured Obama’s former pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright shouting, “God damn America!”

This, of course, is a tried, true and tested tactic in the Louisiana district Scalise represents. There’s already a memorial there to the late Sheriff Harry Lee, the man who unapologetically won office on a platform of keeping "young black men in rinky-dink cars" out of the Jefferson, Louisiana, town limits. Curiously, Scalise scolded Harry Reid last August for questioning that some of the opposition to the nation's first African-American president might be racially motivated, exclaiming, "Shame on Harry Reid for bringing race into [the] conversation.”

Scalise’s promotion is indicative of a party willing to return to its divisive roots — and the Southern strategy that has dominated conservative electoral politics since Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.

And when it comes to Kevin McCarthy’s replacement of Eric Cantor, it all amounts to a difference without a distinction. Cantor may have made a few enemies with his ambitious (and at times abrasive) tactics, but these men are still on the same team.

McCarthy, after all, was among the small group of GOP operatives who attended a secret meeting on the night of President Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009, during which the playbook was written to attack, oppose and deny. As described in Robert Draper’s book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” McCarthy, Cantor, Newt Gingrich, Jim DeMint, Paul Ryan and others conspired to make Obama “a one-term president.”

They may have failed in that stated goal but they have — for all intents and purposes — succeeded legislatively.

Since the Tea Party takeover of 2010, the president’s legislative agenda has been completely derailed. The “Do Nothing Congress” has won through ineptitude. The momentum Obama experienced in his first two years – passing healthcare reform and the stimulus package, which rescued a failing economy – has given way to stalemates on immigration and education reform, gun control, infrastructure investments and a jobs bill.

Instead of moving forward on key programs that could improve the lives of a fragile and flailing middle class, Republicans have kept Obama’s White House mired in the banal — Benghazi pseudo-scandals, incessant repeals of Obamacare and endless debt-ceiling debates.

The GOP’s new leadership team won’t be changing that. McCarthy and Scalise represent continuity, not change.

And it is here that their whiteness and maleness matters, because despite lessons taught by Romney’s loss in 2012, Republicans remain a 90 percent white party in a country in which minorities will represent more than half the population within the next 25 years.

Romney also lost women by 11 percentage points, among an electorate that was 53 percent female. Yet there are only 24 female House and Senate Republicans — less than 9 percent of the party’s congressional membership — in contrast to 77 Democratic women in Congress.

It bears noting that Kevin McCarthy won handily despite a latecomer challenge from Idaho congressman Raul Labrador, a Tea Party favorite of Puerto Rican descent, who ran for the leadership on the very premise that his party needed to better reflect the American electorate.

But the GOP isn’t interested in diversity, and as such is laying the foundations of its own undoing. Its hideous plan is not to appeal to voters through ideas, but rather to solidify power using manipulative tactics like gerrymandering and suppressing minority votes through fraudulent voter-ID legislation.

Republicans' failure to elect a woman or minority to the leadership confirms what we already knew: They are committed to their status quo, hell-bent against hope or change.

And as the nation becomes increasingly brown and the rainbow coalition that twice elected Barack Obama continues to reflect a sea-change of progressive, liberal attitudes, the Grand Old Party remains overwhelmingly white, dominated by men so intent on maintaining power that they refuse to see the coming of the tide.

By Edward Wyckoff Williams

Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root and a contributor to Al Jazeera America. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Edward Wyckoff Williams