By Jesse Washington
The Republican wave produced groundbreaking results for minority candidates, from Latina and Indian-American governors to a pair of black congressmen from the Deep South.
In New Mexico, Susana Martinez was elected as the nation’s first female Hispanic governor. Nikki Haley, whose parents were born in India, will be the first woman governor in South Carolina, and Brian Sandoval became Nevada’s first Hispanic governor.
Insurance company owner Tim Scott will be the first black Republican congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, after easily winning in his conservative district. Scott, a 45-year-old state representative, earned a primary victory over the son of the one-time segregationist U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
In Florida, veteran Allen West ousted a two-term Democrat to a House seat. He is the first black Republican elected to Congress from Florida since a former slave served two terms in the 1870s.
The last black Republican in Congress was J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. He left office in 2003. There were 42 black Democrats in Congress this term.
Several Latino Republicans defeated incumbent House Democrats. In Texas, Bill Flores snatched a seat from Rep. Chet Edwards, who had served 20 years in Congress, and Francisco Canseco beat Rep. Ciro Rodriguez. Jamie Herrera became the first Latino congressman from Washington state.
Opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda fueled Tuesday’s GOP surge, and many also connected Obama to the rise of minority GOP candidates.
“Color is becoming less of an issue,” said Richard Ivory, a black Republican political consultant and founder of hiphoprepublican.com. “There was a time when the white electorate saw race first and made judgments based on this alone. While black Republicans and Obama disagree ideologically, both are candidates whose message surpassed pigment.”
Mark Sawyer, a UCLA professor and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, said Obama’s election pushed the GOP to adjust to a more diverse electorate by seeking out minority candidates.
But he noted that almost all the victorious GOP minorities were elected in majority-white areas and opposed measures such as comprehensive immigration reform that are favored by many Latinos and blacks.
“This election does not show a substantive embrace of a minority agenda,” Sawyer said.
Fourteen black Republicans were on House ballots nationwide, almost double the number in 2008. The largest number of black Republicans in Congress since Reconstruction has been two: Watts and Gary Franks of Connecticut, who left office in 1997.
On the Democratic side, Terri Sewell became the first black woman elected to Congress in Alabama.
Haley, who was backed by the tea party and Sarah Palin, is a 38-year-old state representative who was projected to win easily in conservative South Carolina. She faced unproven accusations of infidelity and questions about her finances and experience. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen made the race closer than anyone expected. She is the nation’s second Indian-American governor, after Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.
Marco Rubio, a Republican and Cuban-American, won a Senate seat in Florida. He will replace the retiring Mel Martinez, another conservative Cuban. Also in Florida, Rubio ally David Rivera, a state representative, held off a fellow Cuban-American, Democrat Joe Garcia, a former Obama administration energy official, for an open House seat.
Jean Howard-Hill, a black Republican who lost a House primary in Tennessee, was cautiously optimistic about the future of minorities in her party.
“We’re going to jump up and down because we have two African-Americans going to Congress?” she said. “There are still opportunities for advancement. But I think we have a good platform to do that now.”