Even though the vast majority of African American voters and lawmakers are Democrats, it may be black Republicans who have the best chance to reach the U.S. Senate or win governorships, at least in the near future.
Unlike their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, black Republicans in Congress—few as they are—usually represent white districts for the simple reason that most African Americans vote Democratic. This has huge implications for the ability of black Republicans to advance up the political ladder. South Carolina’s Tim Scott, one of two African American Republicans in the House, is a prime example. A first-term congressman, Scott represents a mostly white district that stretches from Charleston to Myrtle Beach. As a Republican aligned with the Tea Party, he is in tune with his district and with the majority of South Carolinians, who elected a Tea Party governor in 2010 and revere Senator Jim DeMint.
Scott’s district isn’t particularly affluent, but as an up-and-comer in state politics, he has access to important donors and activists. What’s more, he used the January Republican presidential primary in his state to increase his name recognition. The congressman hosted seven “First in the South Presidential Candidate Town Halls” last summer and fall, sharing the stage separately with each of the leading GOP contenders. Scott is widely mentioned as a candidate for either governor or senator, and if he ran, he could win.
Because of their demographic majority, white voters tend to be closer to the political center in most states. For that reason, a black representative of white voters is more “mainstream” than most representatives of black voters. Of course, you can still have ideological outliers—like Florida Republican Allen West, the other black Republican currently serving in the House, whose Tea Party orthodoxy and extreme rhetoric (President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders should “get the hell out of the United States of America,” he proclaimed at a Lincoln Day dinner in January) would make him a nonstarter statewide. But the more black Republican mayors and representatives white districts elect, the bigger the bench of black candidates who can win higher office will be.
This raises a larger and more difficult question, though. Which is more important: racial diversity in higher offices or effective representation of minority interests? Black Republican officeholders add diversity to our political system. But it’s also true that black lawmakers who represent white constituencies have no history of supporting measures that equalize economic opportunity or improve public education and social services upon which African Americans disproportionately rely.