Tim Scott, Marco Rubio and the GOP’s diversity primary

Opinion

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Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Alex Wong/Getty Images News

If Florida senator Marco Rubio is tapped for president or vice-president in 2016, Republicans will credit his charisma and perhaps his role in convincing fellow Republicans to back an immigration deal, if that eventually passes. But in reality, Rubio was already in the driver’s seat before he ever spoke a word.

Immediately after Election Day, when Republicans for the second straight time lost the presidency in part because minority voters turned against them in droves, GOP elites launched series of tactical shifts that acknowledged the party’s diversity problem. Fox News host Sean Hannity and other conservative voices indicated they would back a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, hoping to blunt the Democrats’ advantage with Latinos. The Republican National Committee convened a group to study how the party could better reach minority voters. Politicians like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal condemned Mitt Romney’s suggestion that minority voters backed Obama because he offered them “gifts” and said the GOP would not allow such rhetoric in the future.

But a more quiet shift is also taking place: The party that officially opposes affirmative action is heavily promoting its diverse faces. When Jim Demint decided to step down as South Carolina’s senator, Republican elites quickly coalesced around the idea of replacing him with Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican House member who had won reelection in 2010. Jindal, virtually ignored as a potential presidential candidate in the 2012 cycle after a dreadfully-delivered speech 2009 when he gave the official GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union address, has seen a revival among conservatives touting him as a White House hopeful. Nearly everyone in politics knew Rubio would give the GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union address if he wanted. There has even been speculation in GOP circles about the potential candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is Canadian-born and therefore probably ineligible to run for president. (Cruz has argued his mother was a U.S. citizen, so he could run for national office).

In this context, Rubio and 11 others have a decided advantage as the party looks to its future: They are not white males in a party desperate to show voters its diversity. Republicans are almost certain not to run a ticket of two white males again in 2016 and risk being cast as out of step with an increasingly diverse country, even if the party also shifts to more palatable views for minorities on issues like immigration. Most party nominees for president and vice-president are either U.S. senators or governors. In short, one of the six non-white/male Republican governors (meaning they are female, minority or both) and the six non-white/male Republican U.S. senators will almost certainly be on the 2016 Republican ticket, either winning the primary or being selected as the running mate.

They are effectively in a “Diversity Primary” against one another for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

This diversity imperative, and a resulting winnowing of the field, is not completely unusual in politics. In 1981, male candidates did not really need to apply when the first Supreme Court vacancy occurred under President Reagan, who ran a campaign in which he committed to appoint the first female Supreme Court justice and then selected Sandra Day O’Connor. In 2009, it was broadly known President Obama wanted to tap the first Latino Supreme Court justice, so Sonia Sotomayor’s name was on nearly every short list, and she was eventually nominated.

And it does not suggest any lack of qualifications. Sotomayor had the same pedigree of Ivy League degrees and top clerkships as other Supreme Court justices. Rubio, if on the ticket in 2016, would have a similar level of political experience to Obama when he ran. Jindal, having served in the House, as a top official in the Bush administration’s department of Health and Human Services and two terms as governor, would have a more diverse and complete set of government experiences than most modern presidents.

“I would say that Jindal, Ayotte, and Rubio are all in good positions because of their capabilities more than their gender, ethnic backgrounds,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist, noting New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is also considered a potential GOP contender for president or vice-president.

Feehery, like other GOP strategists I spoke with, did not want to cast his parties’ leading figures in terms of identity. His argument is both right and wrong. Rubio is no doubt a talented politician. But even Barack Obama had delivered one of the best political speeches in recent memory when he was being touted as presidential candidate in 2007.

Rubio, as even some his allies acknowledge, has done virtually nothing on the national stage, but the former senator is in a stronger position to be on the national ticket in 2016 than any other person in American politics except for Hillary Clinton. The Republicans have a diversity problem, but in practice it’s really a Latino problem. Blacks have backed Democrats for generations and are not likely to defect to the GOP in large numbers, Asians remain a very small part of the American electorate, and Mitt Romney actually won the majority of white women voters and white voters under 30. If Romney could have matched the 40 percent of Latinos George W. Bush did in 2004, instead of getting just 27 percent, he would have had a very strong chance of winning the election.