Jackson, who won on the fourth ballot at the party’s convention, and will run alongside far right Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli, is being compared to Herman Cain, the failed Republican presidential candidate known for his wacky pronouncements about foreign policy (remember “Uzbekibekibekistan?”) and his “9-9-9″ economic policy, which he never could actually explain.
In Jackson, who holds very strong anti-gay views, Virginia conservatives found someone who wouldn’t water down his — and their — beliefs. But the national GOP is cringing at the thought of Jackson turning off centrist voters in the increasingly purple state.
Following in the footsteps of other far-right firebrands like former Florida congressman Allen West (who will soon join Fox News as a contributor, and who made a name for himself saying he “can’t stand” president Obama, telling his tea party supporters to “gather their muskets” and march on the tyrannical White House, and calling 87 House Democrats “communists,” while claiming to be the Harriet Tubman who would lead black voters off the “Democratic plantation” — a mission he seems to have failed at, spectacularly…) Jackson is making news for his rhetoric. He has said President Obama harbors “Muslim sensibilities,” whatever that means, and has compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan. He also has said that there is basically no difference between homosexuality and pedophilia, and that gays’ secret agenda is to “sexualize our children at an early age.”
Not exactly fodder for winning over independents.
Broadening the tent, but at what cost?
It’s clear that the GOP, still reeling from Mitt Romney’s totally expected (though not by them) loss to Barack Obama in 2012, would like to broaden its tent. The party has been aggressive about promoting its non-white stars: from embattled South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both of whom are Indian-American, to their Hispanic stars, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and fiery Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But why does the Republican Party seem to have such a hard time attracting mainstream black candidates?
Recently, the GOP has seized on potential African-American conservative stars like famed Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. Ben Carson, only to have them go up in a ball of rhetorical flames. For Carson, like Jackson, it was his extreme views of gays, in an age when acceptance of same-sex marriage has reached majority status, that ended his meteoric rise in conservative media circles. Are Cain, and West and Carson and Jackson and … remember Alan Keyes (who tried to take the “birther” cause to the Supreme Court, only to be turned away by none other than Clarence Thomas?) … the best the party of Lincoln can do?
Former RNC chairman Michael Steele, now an MSNBC political analyst, says he doesn’t believe the Republican Party has a “black man” problem.
“There’s a difference between a convention of a few thousand people selecting the nominee for whatever office, and the entire Republican Party selecting a nominee through a primary process,” Steele says, referring to Jackson. “Keep in mind, this gentleman ran statewide for the Senate in 2012 and got less than five percent of the vote in the primary.”
Rhetoric backfires on Republicans
But Republican primaries have also produced less-than-viable Senate candidates, from Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who flamed out over comments about whether pregnancies resulting from rape are “God’s plan,” and Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who had to make a commercial insisting that she’s not a witch. Steele says that too is par for the course.
The small group that nominated Jackson is “a subset of the primary voter,” he says. “As we know, in both parties, Republican and Democrat, the primaries tend to bring out the partisans. So the Democratic primary voter is more left than the party as a whole, and the same is true for the GOP.” Steele insists that the people who chose Jackson are merely “a group of activists who are a subset of that group of primary voters, and probably not reflective of northern Virginia. They’re probably more reflective of the western and southern parts of the state. Their views are very conservative.”
Steele acknowledges that Jackson’s presence on the ticket “presents a challenge” for gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, who despite his own association with the religious right, is “trying to steer away from the social issues and toward economic issues to win statewide.”
That will be tougher when Cuccinelli stands beside Jackson, although perhaps the fiery black preacher will make the former attorney general look more moderate by comparison.
A very different party
It didn’t used to be this way.
Republican Ed Brooke became the first black United States Senator since reconstruction when he won the Massachusetts statewide race in 1966. (The first two, Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Bruce, both of Mississippi, were also Republicans, who served in the aftermath of the Civil War.)
And during the 1990s, Oklahoma’s first black congressman, J.C. Watts, was a mainstream figure who managed to ascend to the House leadership before leaving congress in 2002.
Brooke and Watts managed to achieve electoral success without totally burning the bridges between themselves and African-Americans. Perhaps they could do so because both men were part of a version of the Republican Party that was fundamentally different from today’s ultra-conservative GOP.
Brooke was so successful in his two terms in bridging the divide between the increasingly southern, Dixiecrat Republican Party and black Americans, that he was inducted into the New England NAACP’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2008, alongside the liberal lion, Sen. Edward “Teddy” Kennedy. Brooke was, by today’s standards, a very liberal Republican. He battled with then-President Richard Nixon and supported legalized abortion. He lost his seat in 1978 to Democrat Paul Tsongas following a divorce scandal.
Watts became a star quarterback for the University of Oklahoma and an ordained minister before realizing his political ambitions in the “Republican revolution” of 1994. The former likely helped him win in a congressional district that was 90 percent white, and which hadn’t elected a Republican since 1922. The latter is a common route to political leadership for African-American men. When he was elected, Watts became the first black Republican elected to congress from the South, and he was one of just two black Republicans in the House (Connecticut congressman Gary Franks being the other).
Watts came into Congress at a time when the Republican Party was adopting a much more aggressively conservative tone. It was, after all, the congressional class that impeached President Clinton (something Watts voted for). But Watts never stood out for the kind of rhetorical fireworks that have become par for the course for nationally-prominent black Republicans today.
He also maintained some of the tropes of black leadership — so that while he ran on such issues as welfare reform and lowering capital gains taxes, Watts framed the former as better for black families and the latter as good for urban black businesses. He was active in the NAACP and eventually turned against legislative attempts to ban affirmative action, while expressing support for HBCUs. Watts did uphold a tradition not broken until Allen West was elected to congress in 2010 — neither he nor Franks joined the Congressional Black Caucus.
Only the extreme need apply?
With the current GOP firmly in the grip of the far right, it’s rare that a black Republican can rise very far without toeing the line — or even exceeding it.
West rose to fame within the tea party movement precisely because of his extreme rhetoric. Carson caught fire by “taking it to the president” and insulting the commander in chief, who is hated by the right, to his face. With the party base demanding that candidates hew to a solidly conservative line, it’s hard to imagine a more moderate Republican catching on, even if such a figure would help the Republican Party reach black, and suburban white, voters.
|From left to right: Virginia Lt. governor candidate E.W. Jackson, former congressman, and soon to be Fox News personality Allen West, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, and Dr. Ben Carson. (E.W. Jackson photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP; Allen West photo by John W. Adkisson/Getty Images; Hernan Cain photo by Getty Images; Alan Keyes picture, from web archives of his RenewAmerica PAC; Ben Carson photo by Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Images;)|
And because black leadership often comes from the Christian church, former George H.S. Bush adviser, Rev. Joe Watkins, says it shouldn’t be surprising that black evangelical candidates, often ordained ministers, rise to the top of the list when Republicans go looking for viable candidates. And they bring with them the ultra-orthodox views of the multiracial evangelical movement.
“Although the majority of African Americans vote Democrat, there is still a significant bent among people of color towards shared religious values and beliefs,” says Watkins, who pastors a church in Philadelphia. “As a result, it’s not unusual to see some candidates of color display more conservative church taught social leanings – especially if they closely identify with the church.”
But Watkins says the GOP “will need to broaden its tent by appealing to a wider range of voters if the party is to succeed in national elections in the coming election cycles. So those GOP candidates of color who may have a deep religious faith will need to draw on the Biblical mandate to love others – including those who may not agree with them on some issues – if they hope to be successful.”
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons sees the Republican Party losing ground on attracting a more diverse base.
“I think they had a much stronger start a couple years ago, but they kind of lost their momentum on this front,” Simmons says, citing South Carolina Senator Tim Scott as an example of the kind of black Republican who emerged with the tea party wave in 2010, but who fits the model Republicans should build on.
“The leaders in the Senate like him, and see him as a rational human being they can work with,” Simmons said of Scott. But he said the other Republicans, black and white, who are most prominent in the party are a function of where the party is ideologically in the age of Barack Obama.
“I think it’s endemic to the party itself,” says Simmons. “It has to do with the control that the right wing has because of redistricting, and their kind of, overly emotional reaction to Barack Obama, that they are driving themselves further right.”
Simmons says the party’s fundamental conundrum is, “how do they get out of the box of being captive to their most extreme elements?”
“Scott got appointed to the Senate seat [in South Carolina], so we’ll see if he’s able to win the seat outright.”
Scott has not entirely escape the rhetorical clutches of the right. Even before he was tapped by another of the GOP’s diverse would-be stars, embattled South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to fill out the United States Senate term of tea party firebrand Jim DeMint, who left congress to run the Heritage Foundation think tank, Scott had amassed a staunchly right wing record, suggesting President Obama should be impeached if he tried to raise the debt ceiling in 2011, and floating a bill that would kick entire families off of food stamps if one member participated in a labor strike. As a Senator, he has voted against gun purchase background checks, and for gargantuan subsidies to Big Oil.
Simmons says that may not be a complete picture of the quiet, conservative Senator. “My impression is that he is paying lip service to the right wing elements, but I think if you look at his substantive work, I know that he and [Massachusetts' appointed black Democratic Senator] Mo Cowan, they have a pretty good relationship in the Senate and Mo thinks highly of him. And I think there’s a chance to do business with Tim Scott that I never felt was there with Allen West and certainly not with someone like Alan Keyes.”
The GOP can only hope Rev. Jackson isn’t a also a birther.
Written by: Joy-Ann Reid For the Grio!