TRENTON, NJ, February 20, 2014 – “Why I’d Rather be a Black Republican”…if I were an “ambitious, amoral politician.” That’s Jamelle Bouie’s attempt at flattery, in his Daily Beast column this week. Though well-meaning, his attempt to flatter falls flat.
The evidence Bouie cites is not original to him. His argument is premised on Vanderbilt political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer’s paper, “The House as a Stepping Stone to the Senate: Why Do So Few African-American House Members Run?,” Oppenheimer’s study noted that the vast majority of black members of Congress represent heavily black, heavily poor, heavily Democratic districts, thereby denying them the demographic and ideological diversity and fundraising base to be viable statewide.
I have made this point before, noting that the majority-minority district most black members of Congress represent are a disservice to them, the black Americans they represent, and to American democracy, at large.
But where Oppenheimer’s paper, quite well, discussed these phenomena as facing all black candidates, Bouie wants to insist black Republicans are inoculated from some factors. He misses that there are structural realities that encumber minority candidates equally, Democrat and Republican alike, providing reason to look askance at his argument that it’s better to run for office as the latter than the former.
Bouie tries to apply Oppenheimer’s observation about small states where it does not apply, contending that because black Republicans generally run in smaller states they therefore have a smaller “pool” of other candidates to compete against. But as the glut of candidates running this year in the Republican Senate primaries in Georgia and Oklahoma make clear, size of state has no correlation with “pool” of political comers. The greatest predictor of a crowded primary is when a long-time incumbent—in a big or small state—retires, which creates a free-for-all as the entire state’s “bench” clears to succeed them.
For this reason, it’s important to pour cold water on Bouie’s belief that Sen. Tim Scott’s seat is attributable to it being easier for a Republican than a Democrat. The ease comes from the fact that Scott was appointed, not elected. Would Scott have even run—much less won—if he had to compete in an open primary last year? Doubtful.
And what of black Republicans who do win their party’s nominations for statewide office? Easy row to hoe, as Mr. Bouie thinks, it is not. It is more like what political science has documented as the Problem of the Hollow Prize. While Bouie is right that more black Republicans win their party’s nomination for statewide office then do black Democrats, those black Republicans are usually winning hollow prizes. Michael Steele, Lynn Swann, Keith Blackwell, and Alan Keyes—their party’s nominee all—nonetheless went down in their general elections by 10, 21, 24, and 43-points respectively.
And all but Steele were nakedly sacrificial lambs.
Bouie’s analysis misses that the GOP has a very poor record of elevating black Republicans in places where they actually have a strong chance of winning. This is evidenced by the passing over of Michael Williams in Texas and Erika Harold in Indiana. But it’s also illustrated by those whose names rarely make the news because no one in the party seems earnestly invested in vaunting them to higher office—Ohio’s Jennette Bradley, Colorado’s Joe Rogers, Texas’s Wallace Jefferson and Dale Wainwright, and Mississippi’s (late) Yvonne Brown and Nic Lott.
In terms of actual officeholders, Bouie’s thesis seems refuted by the fact Democrats have the edge in black statewide officeholders with New Jersey’s Corey Booker, Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick, and Maryland’s Anthony Brown.
In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, black Republican success is at ebb, not at high tide. The fall of Jennifer Carroll in Florida, the ouster of Michael Steele at the RNC, the flaming out of Allen West, Colin Powell’s twice withholding his endorsement, and the rise of cartoonish laughingstocks in E.W. Jackson and Herman Cain are very disconcerting.
Meanwhile, figures like former Rep. J.C. Watts are publicly defending himself against barbs that his criticisms of party strategy are just him “seeking a contract.” That makes it all the more inexplicable that Bouie—showing how little he knows about intra-GOP dynamics—claims that Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon having J.C. Watts in his corner makes him “competitive.” Paradoxical given that Watts is treated as a pariah in some quarters of the GOP establishment at the moment.
And while it’s true T.W. Shannon is a bright star in the party, equally bright stars have seen their star wattage cut or curtailed when the party doesn’t back them. Just think about Michael Williams and Erika Harold.
In sum, are black Republicans coasting on Easy Street? Hardly.