“Insincere and hypocritical”: GOP struggles to diversify candidates as it attacks diversity programs

As the conservative crusade against diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the federal government and other sectors wages on, House Republicans are gearing up for the 2024 election by recruiting a slate of non-“generic” candidates — and they’re using diversity preferences to choose them.

The National Republican Congressional Committee Chair, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., named a swath of candidates he told reporters fit the “formula” needed for the GOP to add to its fleet in November, the Associated Press reported. Those candidates included Prasanth Reddy, a cancer doctor and veteran who migrated to the United States from India who’s running for a seat in northeast Kansas; Alison Esposito, a gay police detective and congressional candidate in New York; and Kevin Lincoln, a Black American and Hispanic California mayor running in the state.

Republicans aim to expand the slim House majority they won in 2022 in the upcoming election, and they’re hoping diversifying their candidate pool will boost that effort. Their narrow mid-term victory challenged the expectations of critics, who expected the GOP to lose seats, Hudson told the AP.

“Descriptive representation for the sake of descriptive representation is problematic.”

“We beat 15 Democrats and every one of those we beat with a woman, a minority candidate or a veteran,” Hudson said. “That’s really been the playbook for the last two cycles. And so we’re using that same formula.”

The renewed reliance on this strategy comes amid an ultra-conservative attack on diversity and inclusion initiatives both in the federal government and in the private sector. House Republicans have included anti-DEI policy mandates in spending bills, according to the AP, most of which aimed to swipe taxpayer dollars from offices and programs connected to the policy. This assault on those programs has also taken root at the state level, an AP analysis found, with Republican lawmakers in at least 17 states proposing around 50 bills that would restrict or require public disclosure of DEI initiatives. 

When asked by the AP whether the focus on attracting women and minority candidates to run for Republican seats contradicts the efforts to curtail DEI programs, Hudson avoided a direct response. Instead, the North Carolina representative characterized it as “apples and oranges.”

“The motivation is we want our Congress to reflect America. And we believe that if we have dynamic candidates with compelling life stories, then they can win any district because they are not generic Republicans,” Hudson told the outlet.

But Rina Shah, a former Republican congressional senior advisor whose parents hail from Asia and Africa, challenged Hudson’s notion, recalling how the wealth of interest and acceptance she received from party members in relation to her background has since dissipated in the Republican Party in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“There was a lot of, ‘Your story is really amazing, and we would hope you share it as you talk about why it’s important for us to have these policy positions that are about limited government, that are about expanding opportunity,” Shah, now a political strategist and commentator, told Salon. “Those conversations are gone because it is so imperative, it must be a cornerstone of your campaign to kiss the ring of [former President Donald] Trump. So even if the intention is good, it’s waxed over. “

The diversity strategy, then, is “non-genuine,” Shah added, arguing that it’s rooted in a fear of what may happen to party numbers if they don’t adopt the approach.

The NRCC did not respond to Salon’s request for comment. 

Leo Smith, a former Georgia GOP committeeman and minority engagement director, sees the approach as “a step in the right direction” for the party, noting that while the methodology could be “window dressing” or seeking just an increase in voters for the sake of maintaining power, the behavior it demonstrates can beget attitudinal and social changes. 

The Republican party and GOP operatives “are starting to understand that minority candidates who can properly represent [a] pluralistic viewpoint are more viable in a purple, pink district,” Smith, the CEO and founder of political consulting firm Engaged Futures Group, told Salon. “That’s an important acknowledgement. That wasn’t easy to come [to].” 

That behavior appears to be an extension of the 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project, according to Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. The 100-page report, also called the “autopsy,” reviewed the factors that contributed to the Republican Party’s 2012 electoral defeat and determined it needed to conduct greater outreach to communities of color, women and LGBTQ people in order to expand its power. The GOP subsequently allocated $10 million to hiring paid outreach strategists across the country.

The approach also draws on an “unspoken” Trump mirroring tactic of endorsing a candidate who in some way matches the demographics of their Democratic opponent in an effort to make race a constant and deflect from an unsavory or incendiary racial record, Gillespie said. But part of how effective the overall strategy will be in converting voters is contingent on how the candidates engage with race and identity themselves, she told Salon. 

“Descriptive representation for the sake of descriptive representation is problematic, and there are times when Republicans have had some visibly unforced errors in terms of clearly just looking like they’re picking people because they checked boxes off,” Gillespie said, pointing to former Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., a gay and Latino lawmaker whose bevy of scandal preceded his time in office. 

Democrats, she noted, are also capable of failing in that area, but their longer history of outreach to communities of color means their process is “more mature,” which is reflected in the quality of candidates — people who “often pay their dues, and have certain assets that they bring to the table in terms of experience or resources that could actually serve them well.”

House Democrats have an advantage in appealing to women and minority voters, and announced last month a $35 million investment focused on outreach to voters of color through ads, organizing and polling, the AP noted. The party also boasts a greater share of women and minority representatives in their ranks. Of the House’s 130 women, 94 are Democrats and 36 are Republicans, according to a Congressional Research Service report released earlier this month. Fifty-seven House Democrats are Black compared to four Black Republican representatives, 38 are Latino compared to 17 Latino Republicans and 15 are Asian American and Pacific Islander compared to four AAPI Republicans. 

Each party has two Indigenous representatives, while Republicans have a larger number of representatives who are U.S. military veterans, another key demographic in the NRCC’s strategy, according to the House Committee on Veteran Affairs.

In a statement to Salon, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rebuked the NRCC’s recruitment approach.

“House Republican ‘efforts’ to tout diversity in their ranks while they focus on dividing Americans with hateful rhetoric are insincere and hypocritical,” DCCC spokesperson José Muñoz said. “Democrats have built a winning coalition across the country by investing in diverse communities and delivering results for these communities on key issues like lowering the cost of insulin, creating good-paying jobs, and protecting essential freedoms like abortion.”

Because of the slim difference between which party maintains control of the House, who best appeals to women and minority voters will likely play a major role in determining who will take home more seats in November, the AP said. 

While it is too early to tell how effective the strategy will be, Republicans will likely have a hard time appealing to women voters, in part, because of their campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade, which culminated in the federally protected right to abortion being ruled unconstitutional almost two years ago, Shah told Salon. 

“When you talk about how the GOP campaigns in the aftermath of the overturn of Roe, that’s also complicating to people of color because we know with the overturn of Roe who’s most impacted: it’s women of lower socioeconomic status who come from minority communities such as Hispanic and Black,” she said. 

“Trump has made it so unbelievably hard for women to want to run as themselves,” Shah added of the party’s potential candidates pool, also noting Trump’s long-held and notable unpopularity with suburban women voters. 

The platforms of the candidates the NRCC endorses will also matter more to Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters than the color of the candidate’s skin, Smith said. He expects the committee and other independent expenditures will have a hard time engaging with those groups seriously because “currently the Republican Party is rudderless” and without a platform.

“There’s a large faction of the Republican Party [that] is based in mythology. As long as we’re there, we’re going to continue to have a fractious, not sustainable reality,” Smith told Salon, arguing that the “first tranche of minority candidates” that the party may attract are more likely to arise because of qualms with Biden’s leadership. “I mean, you got people, minorities and others, who are totally disassociated from Biden because of the situation in Israel and Gaza.”

Minority groups have also continued voting in the historic range that political scientists have witnessed in the last several decades, with more fluctuation at the presidential level than at the congressional level, Gillespie said, noting multiple election cycles will pass before they manifest into any “appreciable gains” for the party. 

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Republicans, however, got their first glimpse at the short-term efficacy of the formula Tuesday in the New York special election to fill Santos’ seat following his December expulsion from the House. 

Mazi Pilip was the Republican congressional candidate running for the Nassau County seat and a near-perfect model of the NRCC strategy. A former registered Democrat, Pilip is an Ethiopian immigrant and mother of seven who holds both American and Israeli citizenship, having also served as an Israeli paratrooper.

But she was defeated in the contest by former Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., 53.9 percent to 46.1 percent — a 13,109 vote margin, CNN reported. Suozzi’s victory dealt a blistering blow to the Republican party, flipping the seat and further narrowing the House GOP’s tiny majority. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., ripped Pilip after her loss, saying during an appearance on Newsmax, “it turns out DEI isn’t a real good strategy for Republican candidate recruitment.”

Gaetz pointed to Pilip’s reluctance to align herself with former president Trump. Notably, Pilip and Suozzi largely dodged associations with their party’s respective frontrunners due to both candidates’ unpopularity among American voters, according to Politico

“Look, if you don’t want to run as a Donald Trump Republican, what are you even doing running in 2024 on our side? Get on board,” Gaetz said, per Mediaite.

Former President Donald Trump joined him in criticizing Pilip, bemoaning her refusal to endorse him and claiming that it cost her the MAGA Republican vote.  

“Republicans just don’t learn, but maybe she was still a Democrat?” Trump said in part in a Tuesday night post to Truth Social. “I have an almost 99% Endorsement Success Rate in Primaries, and a very good number in the General Elections, as well, but just watched this very foolish woman, Mazi Melesa Pilip, running in a race where she didn’t endorse me and tried to ‘straddle the fence,’ when she would have easily WON if she understood anything about MODERN DAY politics in America.”

That staunch allegiance to Trump even at the expense of more moderate voters and the vitriol directed at those who don’t uphold it does not engender the vaulted recruitment numbers they seek, Shah said.

“You got candidates that are wise to the political winds, want to run campaigns that win, and they may be women, and they may be people of color, and they may represent these sorts of diverse boxes, meaning that they’re not old white men,” she said.

“And that’s it? This is how it ends?” Shah added, referring to Trump’s rebuke of Pilip with frustration coloring her tone. “Most people don’t want that, and that is what Trump has done to the party. That is the impact that is going to be lasting for generations.”

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