The Republican Party Is Getting Even Whiter

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Representative Will Hurd applauds before NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill. 

Will Hurd apparently had enough. The Texas congressman announced last week that he will not run for re-election, one of a string of Republicans to do so in recent days. Perhaps it was that being in the congressional minority is no fun, or perhaps Hurd felt isolated as a relative moderate (“Especially for some of these members who buck the party on occasion, they are finding it a less hospitable place to be,” said former Representative Tom Davis). Or perhaps it was the fact that as the lone African American Republican in the House, Hurd could no longer stand being asked to defend Donald Trump. 

Whatever the reason, Hurd’s departure was just the most vivid recent illustration of the fact that the Republican Party, already extraordinarily white and male, is getting even more so. There are only 13 women among the 197 Republicans in the House of Representatives, making their caucus an incredible 93 percent male. Two of those women have already announced that they won’t be running for re-election in 2020 either. And as it stands now, the GOP’s congressional representatives in Congress (both House and Senate) are 95 percent white. 

After the 2018 election the party became more monochromatic both demographically and ideologically, because that’s how wave elections often work: When a party loses a bunch of seats, they’re almost always in the swing districts that tend to elect moderates. The members who survived are the ones who were never in any danger in the first place—in this case, those who are more conservative.

And then, of course, there’s the influence of President Trump, who plainly believes that the only way to win re-election is to stoke racial controversies, issue racist statements, and turn the campaign into the electoral equivalent of a race war. We’ve never seen a president act like this, with no interest in even pretending that he serves all Americans. For Trump it’s always and only about his base, and he’s sure that what his base wants is heaping portions of race-baiting. 

Had Democrats asked for a Republican president who would narrow his party’s appeal and make it more difficult for that party to win over the America of the future, they could not have asked for a better one than Trump. Not just corrupt, not just an odious human being, but someone who has waged a rhetorical war against wide swaths of the country and pushed his party to embrace its worst impulses.

So while there was a time not to long ago (particularly after the 2012 election) when Republicans looked to the future and knew they had to reach out more to women and racial minorities, Trump put the kibosh on all that. He showed that even in a country growing less white by the year, they could prevail in at least one more presidential election with only the votes of white people.

So Republicans face this dilemma: As the party of whites, they represent a constituency that will only keep shrinking as a proportion of the population. Yet their current position, in which they hold the lion’s share of political power in the United States despite winning the support of well less than half the public, is dependent on remaining the party of white people. They need whites to stay angry and they need to keep suppressing the votes of minorities, but doing so means that should the day ever come that they finally decide to reach out beyond their base, they will have made it somewhere between difficult and impossible. 

And they’ll be terrified that any step in the direction of more inclusivity will risk demobilizing that portion of their base who go to the polls in order to turn back the clock to when, in their view, America was great. If the GOP is just another party trying to build a multi-racial coalition, what’s the point in getting to the polls to vote for them? 

Now imagine it’s 2021, and a Democrat has just been inaugurated president. Even worse, imagine it’s a woman or an African American. There will once again be a Tea Party-style revolt of the Republican base, and even if it succeeds in winning some seats back in the 2022 midterms, it is likely to be saturated with racialized white anger over a country that keeps changing in ways they don’t like.

All Americans will watch that revolt, and know that the GOP is indeed the party of white people. The few Republican voices warning about the limitations of that racial strategy will compete with those insisting that it’s the only way to hold on to what they have. And when it comes time to choose a presidential nominee in 2024, at least some candidates will try to recreate the successful 2016 Trump campaign, driven by the engine of racial grievance. One of them might just succeed, because the voters who carried Trump to victory will still be a powerful force within the party. 

After he announced his coming retirement, Representative Hurd told The Washington Post that he might run for another office in the future. “I think I have an opportunity to help make sure the Republican Party looks like America,” he said. It’s an admirable hope. But what if his party isn’t interested?

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