The Republican primary elections across the country starting next month will signal how much influence Donald Trump still has in the party, crudely measured by how well candidates backed by the former president fare. The GOP primaries will also be worth watching to see whether some of the demographic shifts of the 2020 presidential election—the party’s modest gains with Hispanic voters and its slight recovery with black voters—will translate to the midterms.
More than a few black Republican candidates this year sit at the intersection of those two questions about the GOP’s future, having been endorsed by Trump and figuring to be key to keeping the black voters that trickled back into the party after more than a decade away. These congressional aspirants are part of a record class—the National Republican Congressional Committee reports that more than 80 black candidates are running in the party’s primaries this year, the most in history. They hope to improve on the party’s dismal ability to seat black members of Congress: In the last century, there have only been 9 black Republican representatives and 2 black Republican senators. To put this in perspective, there have been more black Democrats in each Congress since 1971 than the total number of black Republicans for the last 100 years.
What, then, accounts for the rush of black Republicans this cycle? The answer might be found in another striking statistic: Of the 10 black congressional Republicans in the last century (Tim Scott was in the House before being appointed to the Senate in 2013), more than half—6 of 10—took office after 2010, and two of them are freshmen in the current Congress. Why, when black voters’ support for Republican candidates has been at historic lows for the last 15 years, would there be twice as many black Republicans serving in Congress in that same time frame?
My sense of it is that recent black Republicans in Congress have benefited from the persistent capture of the party by movements—first the Tea Party, now Trumpism. And when black candidates—in fact, racial or ethnic minority candidates generally—are able to convey a deeper alignment with the capturing movement than white candidates, they greatly improve their chances of winning the party primary decided by an electorate where 9 in 10 voters are white.
Put simply, movements like the Tea Party and Trumpism deepen partisan identity and make it far easier to identify who you’re for and who you’re against, even to the point of overlooking other traditional cues. As such, a black candidate who leans heavily into the movement’s symbols, rhetoric, and harsh critiques of prominent Democrats not only becomes an acceptable avatar but also an aegis against accusations of racial intolerance within the movement itself. Further, donning the partisan identity with the recognizable features of contemporary movement conservatism works to mitigate the perception of black Americans as beholden to big government progressivism that places these candidates at a disadvantage in Republican primaries from the outset.
Precisely because they have been such a relative rarity in Congress over the last century, black Republicans have been the subject of much scholarly curiosity that has produced insights against which we can test such propositions. Political historian Leah Wright Rigueur’s book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, is the definitive work on how these partisans have had to reconcile the party’s perception of black America’s interests with black people’s impression of the Republican party. And many others, myself included, have explored what sort of candidates, conditions, and appeals could elicit more competition between the parties for black voters.
To the question of why black Republicans have had more success in recent years, two studies are particularly helpful. In one study conducted by political scientists Trey Hood III and Seth McKee and published in 2015, they found “that white conservatives are either more supportive of minority Republicans or just as likely to vote for a minority as they are a white Republican.” Moreover, their research showed that white conservatives consider minority Republican candidates to be inherently more conservative, such that increasing levels of conservatism in white voters led to them being more supportive of the minority Republican candidates relative to white ones.
Building on this, four political scientists published a paper last year that demonstrated when black candidates send conservative cues, they can win the support of white voters who register higher levels of racial resentment (a term which I have written about in detail). They found that “among Republican respondents, increasing levels of racial resentment are associated with an even higher probability of voting for a black Republican and a lower probability of voting for a black Democrat.” One of their central findings is that when a black Republican candidate communicates and embodies an individualist message that highlights the value of hard work and self-determination, white racial conservatives in either party are more likely to support that candidate over a white one.
Trumpism makes the conservative cues easily recognizable—MAGA hats, talk of a stolen election, scapegoating of “liberal elites,” fake news grievances, “Lock Her Up” chants, border wall obsessions, the demonization of anyone and anything that (D) can be placed next to, and the list goes on. A black Republican in this vein not only undercuts negative perceptions Republican voters may have but builds support from among that same cohort. The opportunity this realization creates is too attractive for a not-insignificant number of potential black candidates to ignore. And so, they run.
Two important points worth keeping in mind: First, running does not equate to winning. It simply isn’t enough to be black and Republican with the right messaging. After all, the messenger still matters, and Herschel Walker is no Will Hurd.
Second, just because this analysis is laid out in terms of rhetoric and strategy and positioning does not mean that these black Republican candidates are all disingenuous. Some are certainly brazen opportunists; others are earnest and pragmatic—we can only judge them by their words and deeds.
What does this all mean for the prospects of the record number of black Republicans running? It is too early to say anything definitive, but we have a clue. One set of Republican primaries has already taken place in Texas, where a couple of black Republicans contended for governor and for a newly created congressional district. In the former, Allen West, the one-term representative who rode the Tea Party wave into Congress and Trumpism to the chair of the Texas GOP, was trounced by the incumbent and Trump-supported governor Greg Abbott, managing only 12.3 percent of the primary vote. Conversely, Wesley Hunt, a Trump-endorsed Army veteran proficient in the movement’s cues, handily won the primary in a district that is solidly Republican. A key difference aside from the Trump endorsement? West is a bombastic firebrand who’s polarizing even within the party, while Hunt is the picture of respectability who will toe the party line and not draw attention to himself.
Such contrasts can be found across the country. John James in Michigan is another Trump-backed military veteran seeking a House seat while former football star Herschel Walker hopes to land in the Senate on the strength of nothing but a Trump endorsement and name recognition.
Bottom line: Given the number of black Republican candidates and the developing dynamics of this midterm, it seems likely that there will be more black Republicans in the next Congress. And should the three sitting black congressional Republicans—Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott—win re-election in November, it will only take one other black Republican to make it the largest class—four—since 1875. And if two win? It’ll be the largest in the nation’s history, tying the post-Fifteenth Amendment class of 1871 at five.
Whatever the outcome, we can be certain that the rise of Trumpism, like the Tea Party before it, paved the way for more black Republicans in Congress. Contemporary movement conservatism establishes a sort of subgroup identity that embraces minority exceptionalism. Importantly, this does not mean that the distinct conservatism found in black America will find expression in the Republican party, only that the toxic partisanship wreaking havoc on our democracy and society can sometimes work to conceal unresolved tensions along other fault lines.