Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for starting your week with us. According to the Republican National Committee, 160 Black candidates filed to run as Republicans in local, state, and federal elections this year. As of last month, 120 are still running.
Jennifer Ruth-Green: I'm Jennifer Ruth-Green, and you and I aren't all that different.
Burgess Owens: The politicians pick American against American, rich versus poor, Black versus white. I don't believe in that garbage.
Wesley Hunt: What unites us is color. Red, white, and blue, I'm Wesley Hunt.
Burgess Owens: I'm Burgess Owens.
Herschel Walker: I'm Herschel Walker and I approve this message.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, there have never been more than seven Black Republicans in the House of Representatives at one time. That time was back in the 1870s during reconstruction when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln but with a record 81 Black Republican candidates running in house primaries this year, that may well change come November. The Republican Party hasn't been the party of Lincoln for a long time.
It's now by many measures, the party of Trump, and while the overwhelming majority of Black voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates at all levels, Black male voters did give President Trump an increasing share of their vote in both 2016 and 2020. Just how Black and brown is the future of the Republican Party. With me now is Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur.
She's Associate Professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, an author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power. Professor. Rigueur, thanks for coming back on the show.
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: Oh, thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also joining us is Brendan Buck, a partner with the political communication firm, Seven Letter. Brendan was the press secretary for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Thanks for joining us, Brendan.
Brendan Buck: Hey, Melissa. Good to be back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Leah put this in historic perspective for us. Are we living in a renaissance of Black Republican Partnership?
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: [laughs] I wouldn't call it a renaissance, but I would say that it's certainly a moment that we should all be paying attention to. There have been other in the last six years or so, there have been other moments that mirror, the moment that we're in right now, where there have been a lot of African Americans that have run as Republican candidates that generally have not done well when it comes to the general election.
What's different here and this is what I would really point to, is the fact that the Republican Party is actually investing money, time, and support into these Black candidates and that's relatively new. There have been other periods of time where the GOP has done that, but in the recent past, even 2016 and 2020, if you want to look at it, the party has not been committed to that kind of thing.
In fact, candidates including several candidates who are running right now have complained about this. For the party to actually be sponsoring at the very least about 81 Black candidates, that's a big deal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Brendan, obviously, the National Party does not take sides in a primary. Help us to understand how, or if the National Party through the RNC sees value in having a more diverse slate, even if they're not choosing candidate A over candidate B in a primary race?
Brendan Buck: Often they're not choosing but they play a role when it comes through recruitment and it's going out in districts and finding people there that they think might be appealing. They do have a role there. I think that's part of it. I think this goes back to last cycle, the last election, Republicans did surprisingly well with Hispanic voters and did really well in races where we ran women, where we ran Veterans, and when we ran Hispanic candidates.
I think this is an extension of that. They saw that perhaps here we have an opportunity to give people a different view, a different look of the party. I don't know that this is necessarily going to change the face of the Republican Party at all, I think you're probably only going to have a handful of these candidates in serious races where they have the chance to win.
The party clearly sees some value in projecting a different image of the party. Obviously, Donald Trump has cast an image that is obviously driven by race, very controversial. I think this is at least a small attempt to push back on that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Brendan, I'm very much old enough to remember Big Tent Republican politics from George HW Bush, and certainly with George W. Bush on this sense of a future of the Republican Party being one that is more demographically diverse to represent changing demography within the US. Also old enough to remember shifts brought to us by speaker Gingrich around seeing midterms not as just a local set of races that aggregate, but actually taking a national approach to the issues and the messaging that's on the table.
Bring those together for me, is the Republican Party this year taking a more speaker Gingrich national approach to midterms, or a more democratic side tip O'Neil, all politics are local approach?
Brendan Buck: Well, I think all politics are national and it's been that way probably since Newt Gingrich and Republicans are banking on that. Republicans are banking on the idea that the national environment is so bad for Democrats that it doesn't really matter who you run in some of these districts. They're going to sweep some of these Republicans into office. That has often been the case in recent midterm elections, particularly the first year of a new president.
Democrats are certainly trying to personalize races. Democrats are trying to point out some of the more extreme positions that some of the Republicans have taken, but Republicans by and large don't want to talk about themselves. Republicans want to talk about gas prices, food prices, and a very unpopular president. That is really what they're hoping will sweep them into power. History has shown that that may just work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Leah, let's talk about this president with low national approval ratings again, national polls. I mean, regardless of whether we think what's driving what happens at the polls is national or more local, this is not a time when the outcome of the midterms is determined by a national vote. It's determined district by district, precinct by precinct. When you look at Black Republicans making a choice to run this year, is this about a pro-GOP, or is it about an anti-DNC? Is this about being over the Democrats at this point?
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: It's a little of both. The first thing is that the kind of Black Republicans that you see running in 2022 are very much going to be reflective of the National Party of where the Republican Party is right now. They're not really going to stray that far away from Trumpism because to do so, would run the risk of not being supported, would run the risk of really alienating a good deal of the base, even in places where the base isn't made up of Trump supporters or Trumpy folks.
You're going to see that it's just too much of a risk. There's no reward in critiquing the Republican Party as a Republican candidate running in the moment. The exception to that are areas that have a higher than usual concentration of African American voters, or essentially, those Black Republican candidates need Black voters to win. I'm going to put an asterisk next to Herschel Walker because his strategy seems to be something else altogether, but in these other areas like in Michigan, for example, you tend to see that these Black Republican candidates are absolutely running on the antagonism, this increasing and encroaching antagonism between Black voters and the Democratic Party at large.
One of the things that we know, and Melissa, you've written about this in your own work is that African Americans, this partisanship, this really extreme partisanship that we see of African Americans towards the Democratic Party, actually obscures really intense tensions and problems, longstanding problems. We know that it generally manifests as African Americans either registering as independence or not voting together and in some really small cases. That's what we're seeing actually crop up in 2022. We do see some African Americans who say, "You know what? I'm willing to give the Republican Party a chance, and I'm going to run as a Republican because I'm tired."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Well, since you cited my work, I'm going to take that as it's now on the table.
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: Of course.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just dig in on that for just two things that I've written in the past. I just want to check with you on whether or not you think they're accurate in this moment. One is that this notion that Black candidates within the RNC are not really in order to attract Black voters so much as they are to do two things. One, keep Black voters maybe from turning out for the Democrats, especially in the midterm.
Not to be that excited about the alternative and also that they are there in part to signal to non-racist white voters that it's really okay to cast or vote for the Republican Party because doing so does not indicate racial animus as is the language right now in the Trump era that actually one can very much be a Republican without having anti-Black racial animus. Do you think that's part of what's going on here or is this a New version?
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: Absolutely. One of the questions that I get asked all the time is in an era of Trump, which is we've seen extremism, bigotry, xenophobia racism, you name it, why is it that we're seeing more African Americans or seemingly more African Americans running as Republicans? Part of that is, no, actually, they've always been there. They just have a bigger platform, but also, because in these spaces, essentially, Republican strategists have determined that there are certain spaces where African American Republicans can actually make a significant difference in a couple of different ways.
The first one is cutting into African American voters. There's an opportunity there, particularly amongst a very small cadre of Black male voters. The second though is exactly what you said, which is to, it does the work of essentially legitimizing or validating certain things that the Republican party has put forward, but also reassuring voters, particularly white voters, that these people can't be as racist or as sexist, or as bigoted or as xenophobic as they appear to be because here's a Black person that is essentially validating or legitimizing what they're saying.
It provides a defense. We might say, from an ethical or a moral standpoint, that's not great, that is really disappointing, that is discouraging. From a strategic standpoint, it makes absolutely a lot of sense because, in essence, what voters do look for, at least non-Black voters look for is, is this person somebody that I can trust? Can I look to them and be reassured that they're not racist and in a lot of ways, Black Republican candidates provide that line of defense.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, we're going to take a very short break here. When we come back, Brendan, I'm going to play a little bit of speed round with you. I want to see how you are seeing key strategies within the Republican Party for the midterms this year. Stick with us on The Takeaway for more on the future, the Republican Party.
It's MHP. I'm back with Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur from Johns Hopkins and Republican strategist, Brendan Buck. We're talking about the midterms and the future of the Republican Party. All right, Brendan, let's do a little, we don't have to be that speedy, but I want to just go through a few things. In general, for Republican candidates right now at all levels, is it run with Trump, away from Trump, or just pretend there is no Trump?
Brendan Buck: Probably the latter. I mean, to get through a primary, you certainly can't be offending Trump, but everybody knows generally that he is a burden in a general election. I think everybody wants to talk about Joe Biden, not Donald Trump.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of President Biden, he's been saying Roe is on the ballot to motivate Democratic voters in the midterms. We do know that there is a bit of a disconnect between Republican voters and Republican leadership, at least on some aspects of the legality and availability of abortion. Does the Supreme court decision in Dobbs, ultimately, motivate or demotivate, that's not a word, but actually discourage Republican voters from showing up in the midterms?
Brendan Buck: I don't think it has a big impact on Republican voters. I do think it gives Democrats something to hold onto in terms of motivating their own voters. Republicans are not running on abortion politics, they probably have to do and say the right things to win a Republican primary. When it comes to the general election, you're not seeing very many Republicans running ads talking about limiting abortion access.
That's why there are a few things that have happened recently that I think may give Democrats a little hope. I'm not saying that enough to hold the House, but the abortion ruling certainly I think woke up Democratic voters. That was one of the big problems I see for Democrats is that not just that Joe Biden is unpopular and things typically go bad for the party in power, but it's just that Democrats are not excited.
They are disappointed. They don't have the motivation you typically need in a midterm election. Midterms are about enthusiasm. There just, isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm among, Democrats, but the abortion ruling, I think potentially could change that. I think the January 6th hearings may remind people that there is a choice in this election. Typically, midterm elections are referendums on the party in power. Perhaps now there's enough going on that can remind voters that Republicans are not somebody you want to be voting for either if you're independent or Democrat voter and that could get you out. Then, of course, it's all the things that are happening in Congress.
All of a sudden, the Democratic agenda is back and you're seeing Democrats getting excited again. If you're a Republican, you got to keep an eye on this, that you've been banking on the idea that Democrats are depressed, Democrats are not going to turn out and potentially, that could change soon.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here are a few Republican presidential names that I haven't heard in quite some time. Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush. I just don't hear them invoked in the way that, again, a decade ago or two decades ago, would've been a standard part of Republicans talking about and situating themselves. Are you expecting to hear anything about the legacy of these presidents moving forward?
Brendan Buck: Not anytime soon. This is definitely Donald Trump's party, which is obviously not a novel concept, but even without Donald Trump, Trumpism is clearly prevailing. I do think he's going to run. I do think he's going to be the nominee, but you hear a lot of commentary about, well, maybe now is the time where people are ready to turn the page and you see polling that shows people are ready for maybe Ron DeSantis.
It's all a lot of the same type of politics. Everybody is still rushing to be populist to grievance politics. This is the big change in the Republican Party for the future is it is trying to be a party for the working class, which is never really the role that it tried to play. It used to be you're more educated, more affluent voters were a big part of the Republican base. Now educated voters are all voting Democratic.
That is a huge shift I think is going to persist for a long time and probably speaks to a little bit of why Republicans are trying to elevate Black candidates. This isn't necessarily a midterm play for this midterm, but maybe it's a longer-term play to try to change the face of the party, to be more about working people running on this message, that there are elites in Washington who are more out for themselves than out for you. We can be a voice for you. Whether it's Donald Trump or whoever it is, those basic concepts are still there and it's a party that really wants to change who it is appealing to for the long term.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Dr. Wright Rigueur, as I'm listening to Brendan, I just feel like I have to make this confession that when things are tough politically, I do have a tendency to go back and binge-watch the West Wing. I'm so sorry. It just is true. I know every word ever spoken in the West Wing and I'm right now on the part where there's a fight for the soul of the Republican party circa, whatever, this is like 2000, and Arnold Vinick has emerged as this moderate Republican who is speaking across lines of difference.
As I'm listening to Brendan, talk about this long-term vision for the party. I am wondering if we're at an inflection point here for the Republican Party, is this fantasy of Democratic writers back in the early odds, a possibility for the very real Republican Party
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: Superficially, yes, but in reality, absolutely not because that's simply not going to work in the primaries. It's not what's going to take any kind of candidate that wants to be the front runner into the limelight. The Republican primaries are a very big hurdle and we've seen over the last couple of years that the person that makes it to the finish line is not the one who is the west wing ideal, know a moderate middle-of-the-road person. Instead, is the person that can really traffic in grievance politics while simultaneously putting on a veneer of some respectability.
The Republican Party has, for a very long time, really since the two parties inverted have chased this idea of having the ability to have Black people, labor, and even racists all within the same party. The truth is we're in a different era. That's not possible. They can't do what the new deal did or what the great society did. Instead, what we're really going to see is who are these new people that are moving into the party that just happen to have these racial identities?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Leah Wright Rigueur is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, and Brendan Buck is a Partner at Seven Letter and former press secretary for former House speaker, John Boehner. Thank you, both Leah and Brendan for being here.
Dr. Leah Wright Rigueur: Thank you.
Brendan Buck: Thank you.
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