GOP finds 2010 a time for choosing

By Alexander Burns
|  Saturday, Sep 5, 2009  |  Updated 6:24 AM PDT
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Presidential GOP Hopefuls for 2012

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Kay Bailey Hutchinson, left, is one of the women who could take center stage for the diverse GOP in 2012.

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After two successive elections that have exposed the Republican Party to ridicule for its lack of diversity and narrow demographic appeal, the GOP suddenly finds itself with an unexpected bounty.

From the West Coast to the East Coast, in some of the smallest and largest states in the nation, the party is currently fielding an unusually diverse crop of serious statewide candidates drawn from the seemingly endless list of constituencies the GOP lost in 2008—notably women, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and young people.

Electing just a few of these prospects would give the party a dramatic facelift and go a long way toward addressing its long-running diversity deficit, though it may not alter any of the underlying ideas that may be contributing to the gap.

Under the right conditions, the GOP could end up in 2011 with female governors in the two largest states in the nation—California and Texas. Or with a black senator from Texas, an Hispanic female governor in New Mexico, a Colorado governor in his early 30s and two Indian American governors in the Deep South—one of them female.

Some Republicans see the pipeline of diverse 2010 candidates as an unprecedented opportunity for the party to shake up its white-guy image, nothing less than a godsend after the historic election of a Democratic African American presidential candidate.

"When people start thinking about parties and they see who people put on tickets nationwide, that is what really impacts people's perceptions of a party," said a GOP operative who closely follows governor's races. "When you're thinking about how the GOP is going to grow its base, it's when you really put forward a field of 37 candidates that represent America. And over time, people notice that the GOP actually has a lot of good candidates that are not white males."

The roster of viable contenders goes on and on. In Nevada, former federal judge Brian Sandoval, an Hispanic, is expected to enter the governor's race as the GOP frontrunner while state party chair Sue Lowden is testing the waters for a run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Hawaii's likely GOP nominee for governor is Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, who is of Chinese, Portuguese and ethnic Hawaiian descent. In Colorado, the Senate primary already includes Aurora Councilman Ryan Frazier, an African American, with former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton likely to join the race.

Republicans are also fielding promising female Senate candidates in New Hampshire and California, and women are leading candidates for governor in Oklahoma, where Rep. Mary Fallin is her party's top candidate, and California, where former eBay CEO Meg Whitman leads the field in the polls. In Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is engaged in a contentious gubernatorial primary with incumbent Rick Perry.

"I think there's kind of an organic uprising of new blood and new faces in the party right now," said Alan Philp, the Republican National Committee's field director for an area including Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and five other states. "We're not going to be the party of nominating the next guy in line. I think there's an eagerness for new faces."

It’s not entirely clear, however, that all Republicans view the moment as a time for choosing new faces. There have been few efforts aimed at clearing the primary election field to give these candidates a head start. In some cases, the party establishment has weighed in against them, raising the distinct possibility that many of these candidates will never go before the general electorate in November 2010.

In Florida, where the GOP’s lone Hispanic senator is stepping down, national Republicans have already made clear that Gov. Charlie Crist is their preferred candidate over former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Cuban American. Other candidates, such as prosecutor Susana Martinez, who is running for governor in New Mexico, must navigate potentially crowded primaries. Elsewhere, veteran party stalwarts stand in the way of promising fresh upstarts.

"The starting point, for so many Republicans, is a deep-seated frustration with the direction of the party over the last 8, 10 years," explained state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, a 33-year-old running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Colorado against former six-term Congressman Scott McInnis. "We held the reins of power and in many respects we blew it, especially on the fiscal issues. I think that creates a huge market for new faces, new leaders."

In previous years, the GOP has had limited success in fielding women and minority candidates and even less success in electing them. With Sen. Mel Martinez’s impending departure, the Senate Republican Conference will be all-white, with just four female senators, compared to the Senate Democratic Caucus, which has 12 women, two Asian Americans, an Hispanic American and an African American.

Republicans, who have long decried race- and gender-based politics, tend to dismiss such head counts. But as the party looks to turn the page on a troubled chapter, some candidates acknowledge that simply looking different than a traditional Republican is an asset.

"We've got to have different kinds of messengers," said Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, who is seeking Hutchison’s Senate seat. "Voters may not vote for me just because I'm African American. I wouldn't expect that. But I may get a look-see because of that."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who endorsed Williams in a fundraising letter last week, suggested the Texan could appeal to voters eager for change, generating enthusiasm just as President Barack Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton did with their historic presidential bids.

"It opens the door for a first look," Gingrich told POLITICO. "It opens up moderate areas and suburban areas in a way that traditional candidates can't…A lot of Americans want to find ways to bring us together to transcend ethnicity and become, truly, one country."

Susana Martinez, who currently serves as district attorney in New Mexico's Dona Ana County, downplayed suggestions that her campaign might prove especially appealing to women and minorities. At the same time, however, she acknowledged that voters might respond differently to a Republican candidate with her background.

"Their willingness to listen may be sparked because I'm female or Hispanic, but that isn't what I have to offer. What I have to offer is my education and my training and my experience," she said. "That may be why they pause a second to maybe listen to the message that I have."

Rubio, who is seeking the Florida Senate seat, framed a small-government, pro-business pitch that he said could appeal to non-traditional Republican voters—particularly the ones turned off by some conservatives’ overheated rhetoric on illegal immigration. Indeed, several top candidates now frame their conservatism explicitly in terms of the immigrant experience.

"One of the strongest sentiments in the Hispanic community is a desire to be an entrepreneur," Rubio argued. "Why do people abandon their native lands and come to the United States?...You can be anything you want to be, if you're willing to work hard and play by the rules."

State Rep. Nikki Haley, an Indian American running for governor of South Carolina, echoed that rhetoric.

“I'm the daughter of immigrant parents that reminded us every day, the value of the opportunity to live in this country,” she said.

Like Martinez, Haley said she's skeptical that people will vote for her because of her gender or ethnicity. But, she noted, "I think that of course I can connect with people based on my life experiences, whether that's being a wife, whether that's being a mom, whether that's being an accountant."

Even if the party ultimately fields a diverse array of candidates, there’s no guarantee that the party's public image will be burnished or that its message will be embraced. In 2006, the GOP fielded credible African American nominees like Ken Blackwell, who ran for governor of Ohio, and Lynn Swann, who ran for governor in Pennsylvania. Both lost by wide margins.

In Maryland that same year, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, then the party's Senate nominee, lost 54 percent to 44 percent.

Just being a new face, Penry cautioned, isn't enough to win over voters on Election Day.

"Every event we go to, the event organizer tells us it's the biggest event they've had, but I have to close the deal," Penry said. "I think Sarah Palin created tremendous enthusiasm because she was new and didn't necessarily close the deal with a lot of people."

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