Of course, it has begun: Speculation about the next Republican presidential nominee, followed closely by speculation about whether that candidate will be a minority. What better antidote, after all, to the TV shots of nearly all-white crowds at last summer’s GOP convention? What better buffer against the impending doom of the Census?
Here’s some good news for the GOP: The bench is deep, and it’s diverse, with rising stars that range from Marco Rubio to Susana Martinez, to the nation’s two Indian-American governors, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley.
Much will be said about Rubio and Martinez, in the context of the huge Latino voting gap. But Jindal and Haley — 40-somethings who lead Louisiana and South Carolina, respectively — also represent a particular path, and a particular hope.
On a surface level, both present an obvious way to reach growing numbers of Indian-American and Asian-American voters. And in a tightly divided country, every voting block matters. At 2.8 million, the Indian-American population is relatively small. But in a state like Virginia or Ohio, 100,000 concentrated Indian-American votes could swing an election, notes Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US-India Political Action Committee.
So far, Puri said, Democrats have taken stronger steps to win over Indian voters; the Obama campaign made a deliberate outreach to the Indian and Asian communities, and Obama attends the White House’s annual Diwali celebration. (George W. Bush, Puri said, used to send Cabinet members in his stead.) Still, Indian-Americans could easily lean Republican, Puri notes, given the right circumstances and the right form of persuasion: “People like to be courted.”
Indians tend to be highly-educated, with higher-than-average incomes. They tend to be socially liberal, Puri said, but fiscally conservative. (They also have an interest in immigration reform, Puri notes, including a desire to make it easier for immigrants on skilled-worker to bring their spouses to America.) And for the GOP, embracing an Indian-American rising star would have benefits that reach beyond any particular voting bloc. There is the symbolic importance of expanding the tent, the natural appeal of an immigrant-family story, which both Jindal and Haley tell frequently on the campaign trail.
But being a minority, in a party dominated by social conservatives, demands some tricky navigation between past and present. It can’t hurt, for instance, that both Jindal and Haley are Christian. Haley, raised Sikh, converted when she married, and told Time magazine that, when she ran for office, “I felt like a lot of people wanted me to discount the way I was raised.”
Jindal, raised Hindu, found Christianity as a teenager, and was baptized into Catholicism. As a US representative in 2007, he raised the mild ire of American Hindus when he abstained from a vote on a resolution recognizing Diwali.
In their Southern states, meanwhile, both represent a rightward strain of Republicanism. Haley, who rode into office on a Tea Party wave, turned back stimulus money for her state’s K-12 schools and has declared that “government is the dead weight we all drag behind us.”
Jindal, meanwhile, started out in government as a fairly non-ideological wonk: At 24, fresh off a Rhodes Scholarship, he was named head of the Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, and he served as executive director of a national bipartisan commission on Medicare. But in elected office, Jindal has embraced the religious right: He signed a law allowing “intelligent design” to be taught in Louisiana schools, and in September, he joined Rick Santorum in a bus tour across Iowa oppose a pro-gay-marriage judge.
Smart politicians in red states understand where their bread is buttered, and the far-right rhetoric could carry both Jindal and Haley through the GOP primaries. But if Mitt Romney couldn’t run to the center fast enough, what would either of them do in a general election? Is there time, in the next two or three years, for either one to moderate?
And can the GOP temper itself enough to allow them to change course? For their own sake, Republicans should hope so. Tokenism doesn’t work so well in politics; it’s going to take more than an Indian-American woman with a Southern accent to change the party’s image. But symbolism helps. Just ask the Democrats.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.