Nearly three dozen Black Republicans embarked on long shot bids for Congress, a high number given the paucity of registered Black voters aligning themselves with the Party of Abraham Lincoln. But, as contentious primaries and intra-party fighting left the political landscape scorched, that number quickly evaporated into three: the affable Tim Scott in South Carolina’s 1st district; the mercurial Allen West in Florida’s 21st district; and the moderately toned Ryan Frazier of Colorado’s 7th district.
Scott is considered a virtual shoo-in compared to West and Frazier, who are engaged in hardscrabble hand-to-hand political combat versus solidly entrenched Democratic incumbents. But, if polls hold, both are observed as on track to join Scott in a mini-wave of Black Republicans coming to Washington.
And while many a reporter, headline and political junkie have asked the question of whether or not they could manage membership in the Democratic-heavy Congressional Black Caucus, few have pondered how they will be received by their overwhelmingly white and conservative colleagues in the House of Representatives.
“I’d like to get the answer to that question,” quips an anonymous CBC source laughing at the thought. “How are they going to get along with these tea party guys? It was tough enough for J.C. Watts who was just one Black Republican. Can you imagine what it’ll be like for three?”
As Election Day looms, many see Watts as a point of reference, the former Oklahoma Congressman and one-time House Republican Conference Chair who was once a rising star as the GOP caucus’ lone African-American member. That Watts could not be reached for comment comes as no surprise — it’s a subject he’s been known to treat like it’s radioactive.
But, sources close to Watts describe a legislator in constant conflict with the White male-dominated Republican majority before his abrupt resignation in 2003.
Watts frequently bumped heads with conservative bosses like former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX) on a range of issues, from his alliance with civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) pushing back conservative attacks on affirmative action, to his unsuccessful run for Delay’s post.
Many note that while Republicans always boast their original abolitionist “Party of Lincoln” roots, the reality is a party controlled by red state Southern Congressman with ideological axes to grind, many of them with views and agendas perceived as openly hostile to Black progress.
Still, when asked, most Republicans in the House appear enthusiastic at the thought of multiple Black Republicans on their side, affording a rare opportunity to fend off accusations that the party is “racist.”
“I am glad that more Conservatives are getting elected this cycle, regardless of their ethnicity or race,” says Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), the outspoken founder and Chair of the newly minted tea party Caucus in the House. “Instead of giving these individuals a racial label, I see them as constitutional fighters who will help roll back the liberal agenda enacted by Speaker Pelosi.”
But, it’s that sort of language that worries longtime Black Republicans who are nervous about growing tea party influence in the GOP, particularly after the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights recently released a scathing report on the infant “movement,” charging that white Supremacist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens have infiltrated various chapters.
“Is there any room for Black Republicans who might disagree with certain elements of the tea party platform?” complains one well-placed Republican operative speaking on condition of anonymity. “The reality doesn’t speak to that. Watts found out the hard way.”
But, the potential that the GOP could strategically place these three Republicans of color into leadership positions overnight is within the realm of possibility. “It is highly likely that one of them will serve in a leadership capacity, if elected,” observes former CBC aide and North Carolina Central University political scientist Artemesia Stanberry, who is also co-author of a groundbreaking book titled “Stealth Reconstruction: An Untold Story of Racial Politics in Recent Southern History.”
“Having them direct policy and to speak from the perch of a Republican leadership position will boost their chances to maneuver and thrive within that Caucus,” Stanberry said. “Many of the Black Republicans seeking a congressional seat have true conservative values and would like to make both parties more competitive when it comes to African-American support. It’s a win-win deal.”
Senior Republicans, however, are a bit more cautious in that assessment.
“I don’t think there’s been any discussion other than the enthusiasm for the increased diversity on Capitol Hill,” claims House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) while stumping through Indiana. “Scott and West are leaders — they will emerge very quickly as leaders, particularly in the public debate. I thought it was a great loss to the party when J.C. Watts left the party. I get very excited when our party puts equality in practice.”
But, when asked about how Frazier would be treated, Pence is a bit more reserved, admitting that he has yet to meet the lone centrist in that pack.
“The tradition in the GOP has been a high degree of respect and latitude when there is a difference of opinion,” argues Pence.