The 2024 Republican presidential field has already made history months before the first nominating contest: A record six of the roughly dozen major candidates seeking to become their party’s standard-bearer are people of color.
That includes three Black men: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd and conservative radio host Larry Elder; two candidates of Asian Indian descent: former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; and one Latino contender, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
“The message that our candidates are sending to the rest of America is: ‘We are you,’” said Camilla Moore, a lifelong Republican from the Atlanta area who chairs the Georgia Black Republican Council, an arm of the state GOP. She has not decided whom she will back in the primary.
And although the party’s candidates of color currently trail front-runner former President Donald Trump in the polls, Moore said, “Any of these candidates have an opportunity to break through.”
The growing minority representation in the top echelons of Republican politics could help the party make further inroads with African American and Latino voters – groups long central to the Democratic Party coalition, strategists from both parties say. And questions about racism and the future of policies aimed at dismantling structural barriers for minorities in American society have moved to the forefront of the 2024 contest – particularly after the nation’s high court on Thursday gutted affirmative action in college admissions.
Republican gains among voters of color, though incremental, have been building. In the 2016 election won by Trump, four of the 17 major GOP presidential hopefuls were candidates of color.
In 2020, when Republicans picked up more than a dozen House seats, every one of the newly elected GOP members was a woman, veteran or minority, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez said.
Currently, four Black Republicans serve in the US House – a paltry number compared to the dozens of Black Democrats on Capitol Hill. But in his final House term before he retired in January 2021, Hurd was the only Black Republican in the chamber.
The increasing diversity among GOP candidates “dispels the mythology of the left that the Republican Party is somehow a racist party,” Ramaswamy told CNN. “It would be a truly bizarre brand of racism.”
In many cases, the GOP candidates of color – who are vying for support from a largely White Republican electorate – reject the idea that systemic racism has limited opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities, and they generally oppose policies aimed specifically at benefiting those groups.
Haley, Ramaswamy and Scott all quickly hailed the US Supreme Court’s blockbuster ruling Thursday that colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis in admissions. The decision upended long-standing policies that have benefited Black and Latino students in higher education.
“Picking winners and losers based on race is fundamentally wrong,” Haley said in a statement. Scott argued that universities should eliminate any programs that provide preferential treatment to students, including legacy programs for the children of alumni.
The notion that minorities and other groups do not face structural bias in American society is shared by many Republicans.
A large majority (79%) of registered voters who supported Republican candidates in last year’s midterms said White people receive little or no benefit from societal advantages that Black people do not have, according to polling last October by the Pew Research Center. That included 36% who said White Americans get no benefit at all from such advantages.
“I think the right answer to historical racism is not more racism,” Ramaswamy told CNN in an interview several days before the high court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. “It is colorblind meritocracy.”
Ramaswamy, who at 37 is the only millennial in the GOP field, has penned two books that challenge America’s efforts to confront systemic racism: “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam” and “Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence.” He has vowed to end race-based hiring practices for federal contractors, if elected.
Similarly, Elder – who saw his national profile rise when he sought to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a failed 2021 recall effort – said his party isn’t “about identity politics. We’re about ideas. We’re about principles.”
“And so, anybody that shares those ideals and those principles who wants to run can run,” Elder told CNN.
The divide between traditional Democratic views on the need to redress racial inequities and those espoused by these GOP candidates was thrown into sharp relief earlier in June – when former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, publicly chided Haley and Scott, saying they had failed to acknowledge history’s ugly toll for some Americans.
In the interview on CNN’s “The Axe Files with David Axelrod” podcast, Obama called for “an honest accounting of our past and our present” and said people are “rightly skeptical” of candidates who don’t have a plan to “address crippling generational poverty that is a consequence of hundreds of years of racism in the society.”
Haley and Scott each shot back at the former president. Scott, the first Black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction, called America a “land of opportunity, not a land of oppression.”
Haley, a former United Nations ambassador who has spoken often about growing up in small-town South Carolina as the daughter of Indian immigrants, accused Obama of treating minorities as victims, “instead of empowering them.”
Hurd, a moderate former Texas congressman who represented a heavily Latino district over his three terms in Congress, has voiced frustration with his fellow Republicans’ lack of sensitivity on matters of race, notably titling a chapter in his book: “Don’t be an Asshole, Racist, Misogynist, or Homophobe.”
Hurd told CNN that Republicans have gained ground among minority voters by focusing on kitchen-table issues, such as education.
“What I’ve learned about Black and Brown communities in my time in elected office is they care about putting food on the table, a roof over their head and taking care of the people they love,” he said. “They care about making sure their kids have a good education. And it’s a message … that would resonate.”
Republican officials say their gains among minority voters, albeit modest, have been no accident.
The Republican National Committee, for instance, cited the creation of 38 community centers in 19 states to reach underrepresented communities during the midterms and said the effort will expand ahead of the 2024 elections.
Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – and current GOP presidential contender – swept the once solidly blue Miami-Dade County, becoming the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win this heavily Latino swath of South Florida in two decades.
“Republicans have happily discovered that millions of Latinos align with their policy views and the ideas espoused by the Republican Party,” said Daniel Garza, a senior adviser to Libre Action – part of the political and policy network affiliated with libertarian-leaning billionaire Charles Koch. “They recognize that they can no longer treat with indifference a Latino community that can define outcomes for them.”
Libre has spent a dozen years working to advance free-market, small-government ideas among Latinos in places such as Florida, Texas and Nevada. The group and its affiliated nonprofit now operate in 14 states.
That said, Latino voters still remained Democratic in their overall voting preferences in last year’s midterms – with 60% saying they supported a Democratic House candidate, compared to 39% who backed Republicans, according to exit polls.
Democratic operatives say the GOP’s policy positions on core issues such as limiting access to abortion – along with the often-incendiary rhetoric about immigrants coming from Trump and others – will matter more to minority voters than the presence of Republican candidates of color, who face long odds of securing their party’s nod in 2024.
Democratic pollster Roshni Nedungadi of HIT Strategies warns against overplaying Republicans’ marginal gains among voters of color.
“Giving Republicans too much credit for representation seems like minimizing a lot of what voters of color have been telling us about their priorities with candidates,” she said.
But both Nedungadi and Quentin James, a Democratic strategist who works to build Black political power through his Collective PAC, agree that Democrats need to talk more directly about how their policies have addressed the pains of minority voters.
Trump, James said, has been “unapologetic” in touting measures he took as president to benefit African Americans, granting clemency to individual Black celebrities.
“Donald Trump got 1 in 5 Black men to vote for him,” James said, citing exit polls in the 2020 general election. “If we don’t get our act together and double-down our efforts to secure the Black vote, we could start to see these (Republican) candidates of color tear off” support.
“It may just be 1% or 2%,” he added, “but that matters in a national election that’s decided … on the margins.”
At a recent weekend gathering of evangelicals in Washington, Black Trump supporter Egypt Brown echoed the message espoused by the Republican candidates.
“You can’t listen to what someone else says in terms of ‘You can’t do it. You can’t make it. Someone is in your way. Four hundred years ago is in your way,’” the fight promoter and mental health advocate said. “You have to look at today, and today you can make it.”