Opinion

Conservatives are engaging in identity politics — and it's working

Oh, the irony

As the GOP seeks to seize control of the U.S. Senate in the midterms, and hopefully takes back the White House in 2016, the party faithful is increasingly turning to female and minority candidates.

We conservatives tend to oppose affirmative action in favor of merit, and resent the use of identity politics when employed by the Left. So perhaps encouraging GOP candidates to politicize — either subtly or explicitly — their gender or race seems like a philosophical conundrum. At the same time, it is an entirely rational act of self-preservation.

We're seeing hints of it in places like Michigan, where Terri Lynn Land — the former Michigan secretary of state who's running in what has become a very competitive race for the U.S. Senate — is out with a fun ad titled "Really?" In it, the female candidate pokes fun at the suggestion that she's "waging a 'war on women.'"

"Think about that for a moment," Land gibes, before ultimately concluding that "[A]s a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than [Democratic congressman] Gary Peters."

Land is focused on beating a Democrat, but a couple thousand miles away, Portland doctor Monica Wehby is being cheered on by the GOP establishment (including Mitt Romney) in her primary against Rep. Jason Conger. Though Conger is probably more conservative, Wehby, who is in favor of giving women access to abortions, recently won national plaudits for her ad focusing on her work as a pediatric neurosurgeon.

Wehby is the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment for a few reasons. The fact that she's a doctor in a state where the ObamaCare rollout was badly botched doesn't hurt. But her gender is, no doubt, an attribute as well. As The Oregonian noted:

For once, she says with a smile, Democrats might not have a big advantage with women voters. The claim that Republicans are waging a war on women won't work against her, she says.

"I'm not someone who hates kids and women and puppy dogs and all the things they say," she adds. She describes herself as a "single mom who has to keep the trains running on time, has to balance taking care of kids and working....I think I understand what people are dealing with." [The Oregonian]

If candidates are stressing this as a selling point, it's only because it works. In Georgia, at least one conservative opinion leader's endorsement of Karen Handel for the Republican nomination for Senate referenced this calculus: "If I could will someone into the Senate, it'd be Congressman Paul Broun," wrote prominent conservative blogger and commentator Erick Erickson. So why did he endorse Handel instead? "First, she neutralizes the war on women argument" Erickson explained. "Second, she is palatable to the deep pockets that Broun is not palatable to."

If the GOP establishment and the conservative grassroots have finally jumped on the "Mama Grizzly" bandwagon, they're still a few years late to the game. Sarah Palin endorsed Handel (and even narrates one of her ads), as well as Iowa's Joni Ernst (you know, the candidate who "grew up castrating hogs").

Palin's apparent preference for supporting female candidates — even occasionally over arguably more conservative men — isn't new, nor has it escaped the attention of political observers.

Sometimes (as was the case with Nikki Haley) it works. Other times (as was the case with Christine O'Donnell) it doesn't. Along those lines, earlier this year, Palin-backed Lizbeth Benacquisto lost her primary race to replace Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), and Palin-supported Katrina Pierson failed badly in her quest to oust incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas.

But this phenomenon among conservatives isn't limited to female candidates. If anyone doubts the existence of the identity politics card — and the tension within the conservative movement over whether to play it — consider Jonathan Martin's recent New York Times profile of Oklahoma Senate candidate T.W. Shannon, whose mom is black and dad is Chickasaw:

"His name alone!" Sarah Palin exclaimed at a large, nearly all-white rally of supporters for Mr. Shannon in Tulsa last month. "The Democrats accuse us of not embracing diversity? Oh, my goodness, he is — he's it. He is the whole package."

But other conservatives are plainly uncomfortable with such tactics. Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who was also at the rally, said in an interview, "Rather than engage in identity politics and smear campaigns, which is the specialty, sadly, of the modern Democratic Party, we ought to be discussing how to turn this country around." [The New York Times]

If the "war on women" charge that damaged Mitt Romney and several other GOP candidates since 2010 can be undermined with female candidates, then what proves Republicans aren't racist more than nominating candidates who are ethnic minorities?

What's funny, though, if you follow such thinking through to its logical conclusion, is that the GOP boasts more top-tier minority politicians than the Democrats. Putting aside the obvious example — President Obama — it's pretty clear that the Republican Party has more high-profile minority representatives, ranging from Latinos like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, and Brian Sandoval, to African-American Sen. Tim Scott, to Indian-American governors such as Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley.

Nevertheless, Republicans are trying to fight off charges of being a party of old white men. All things being equal, isn't it better for the GOP to support politicians who are young, ethnic minorities, and women? Isn't this just...smart?

Indeed, this is perfectly rational — sagacious, even. But for a movement that has long argued society ought to be color-blind and "gender-blind," it's also a pretty ironic turn of events.

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