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Amid ‘Jim Crow 2.0’ rhetoric, some GOP candidates of color thrive

Texan Wesley Hunt in elite territory with $1 million total for fourth quarter

Wesley Hunt
Wesley Hunt, a Republican candidate in Texas, raised more than $1 million in the fourth quarter. (Courtesy of Hunt for Congress)

Wesley Hunt, who is running for the GOP nomination in Texas’ 38th District, hauled in more than $1 million in the most recent fundraising quarter and holds $1.5 million in the bank.   

That seven-figure sum, which Hunt and his campaign shared first with CQ Roll Call ahead of a Monday filing deadline, puts the Army veteran, who is Black, in the top tier of congressional fundraisers. He’s part of a growing Republican roster of House or Senate candidates or incumbents who are people of color raising eye-popping sums. 

Even as some Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have attacked the GOP as the party of Jim Crow 2.0 for opposition to bills to strengthen voting rights and overhaul elections nationwide, some of the Republican Party’s rising fundraising stars are people of color, many of whom, like Hunt, take issue with Democrats’ messaging.

Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who is Black, raised nearly $7 million in last year’s fourth quarter and had more than $21.5 million cash on hand, according to a campaign adviser. He previously endorsed Hunt

California GOP Rep. Young Kim, who was born in South Korea, plans to report raising $1.2 million in the fourth quarter with about $2.6 million in the bank. Georgia GOP Senate contender Herschel Walker, a former professional football player who is Black, hauled in $5.4 million in the fourth quarter, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Freshman Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, who is Black, had raised $2.3 million as of Sept. 30. 

Those candidates and their fundraising receipts offer a more complex portrait of race and the Republican Party than Democrats’ recent messaging, and show a party seeking more diverse candidates even as many of its members downplay the prominence of racism in America today. 

“What that tells us is we are truly the party of a meritocracy,” said Hunt, who noted that he’d received contributions from 22,000 donors in his bid for Texas’ new, majority white, Houston-area 38th District seat. Hunt, who ran for a different House district in 2020 and lost to Democrat Lizzie Fletcher, has the backing of House GOP leaders including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.

Advocates for the voting rights legislation say it is not mutually exclusive for the GOP to be working to make it more difficult for minority groups to vote while at the same time boosting diverse candidates for Congress.

“It can still be the voter suppression party and still have some Black candidates that are running as Republicans,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which supports the voting rights legislation in Congress. “You’ll always find some number of an oppressed group that will go along with the oppression.” 

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, has said that recruiting more minority, women and veteran candidates is part of the GOP’s path to the majority in 2022. Republicans ousted several House Democrats in 2020 with candidates of color including now-Reps. Michelle Steel of California; María Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez of Florida; and Burgess Owens of Utah, among others. 

Republicans in Michigan are seeking to recruit John James, a Black businessman and Army veteran who lost two back-to-back Senate runs in the state in 2018 and 2020. He raised nearly $50 million for his 2020 campaign and is considering a run in the 10th District this cycle. 

“I think there’s an emerging class of voter, in minority communities, that’s frustrated with the kind of super woke culture and same old narrative that Democrats are offering, and from that class you’re finding more people who are willing to give the pro-business, pro-growth Republican Party an opportunity,” said Marc Lampkin, a former congressional GOP leadership aide who manages the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.  

Lampkin, who is Black, said the GOP, from Emmer to local party officials, is putting a priority on recruiting more diverse candidates. “We’re looking into communities and recruiting candidates and supporting them early,” he said.  

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has said outreach to Hispanic voters in battleground states presents an opportunity for the GOP.   

“I have always said that the more representation communities of color have in Congress, the better off we are,” said Democratic donor and lobbyist Cristina Antelo, who is Latina. “I value that Republicans are making a bigger play for people of color to vote for them. If both sides are fighting for us, we are more likely to be considered in their policies.”

Congressional representation

Still, Democrats in Congress far outpace Republicans when it comes to minorities. House Democrats have 103 members who are people of color (including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native American, Black and Hispanic), while the House GOP has 19. Eight Democratic senators are people of color, while three Republicans are. 

And in the current cycle, some of Democrats’ leading contenders and high-level fundraisers are people of color, including Cheri Beasley in North Carolina’s open Senate race, and Rep. Val Demings, who is seeking to oust Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida. Democrats are also running Hispanic candidates across a wide array of districts, including Andrea Salinas, a contender in Oregon’s 6th District.

Potentially vulnerable incumbent Senate Democrats have also posted huge fundraising tabs, including Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of the congregation Martin Luther King Jr. once led who could face Walker in November. Warnock’s campaign said Thursday it had raised $9.8 million in the fourth quarter and had $23 million on hand on Dec. 31, up from $17.2 million on Sept. 30. 

“The only thing Republicans in Congress have proven is that they can’t recruit their way out of being the party of the Big Lie and blocking voting rights, particularly for people of color. That will be on the ballot next November,” Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an email. 

Hunt says he disagrees with Democrats’ messaging over legislation to set minimum federal standards for state and local jurisdictions’ election procedures, such as requirements for early voting and mail-in ballots, and also reimposing the Justice Department’s ability to vet new state laws that could have a discriminatory effect on voters. Biden, as he tried to build support for Senate passage of the voting rights measure earlier this month, said that new elections and voting laws in GOP-led states amounted to Jim Crow 2.0, which he defined as voter suppression and election subversion. It’s a reference to the segregation, enshrined in law and in practice, of the South before the Civil Rights movement.  

Hunt said his father, who is 72, grew up in Louisiana “under Jim Crow.”

“My father, who is alive and well, never had any formal education with a white person because of segregation, and his son is now running for the United States Congress in the only white majority, Republican-leaning district in Houston and in Harris County,” Hunt said. “And so when they talk about this being Jim Crow 2.0, we have come a very long way. And that’s just hyperbolic rhetoric to make the Republican Party look racist.” 

Though the debate over the voting rights and elections overhaul bill in the Senate was dominated by discussions of race, the votes broke along party, not racial, lines. 

Tim Scott, the first African American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction, said Democrats had mischaracterized new laws in states such as Georgia, where he said officials had set out more days of early voting than in Biden’s home state of Delaware.

“As I listened to the president talk about the importance of stopping what he characterized as Jim Crow 2.0, I felt frustration and irritation rising in my soul,” Scott said on the Senate floor this month.  “I am so thankful, thankful that we are not living in those days.”

Southern roots

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who said his family hailed from the South, countered some of the rhetoric of his own party but said, during floor debate, that voting rights legislation was urgently needed. 

“I know my roots, and I know the challenges of Jim Crow and thank God we are not in a time of Jim Crow,” Booker said. “I’m frustrated that we can agree that there has been overwrought language on both sides of the political aisle around this issue but we should be focusing on the facts.” He added that in the United States “today, it is more difficult for the average African American to vote than the average white American,” including facing longer lines at the polls. 

On the voting rights and elections bill, Hunt said he’s opposed to some of the measure’s provisions, such as requiring all voters to be allowed to cast ballots by mail. He also opposes limits on voter identification requirements. He said he thought mail voting for servicemembers who are overseas should continue, and he supports absentee voting for people over the age of 65.

“And I will say this too: the most racist thing I’ve heard in the last two years to me, has been the notion that Black people cannot acquire an ID,” he said. “So we are a group of people that survived the Middle Passage. We survived slavery, we survived Jim Crow, and you’re telling me that Black people can’t get an ID.”

Hunt is set to face voters in a crowded primary, in which he is favored to win, on March 1. He says that issues of race and voting rights are not his biggest priorities. His dominant messages have focused on energy policy, the U.S. border with Mexico, the economy and rising inflation and education, he said. 

“Those four things are resonating really well. And that’s why we’re raising so much money. We’re getting so much support,” he said. “We are really, really hard on Joe Biden.”

His supporters and donors, he said, want to see more diversity in the GOP. He said they tell him, “‘The fact that you’re Black, I think that’s good, because we do want more diversity. But what matters more to me is your service, your background, your education, and your willingness to fight for conservative causes, which is not good for Black Americans, it’s good for all Americans.”

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