Republican efforts to enhance their appeal with minority voters suffered a series of setbacks this week when a pair of GOP lawmakers made racially explosive comments, stirring immediate condemnation from civil rights groups and threatening to muddy the party’s message of big-tent inclusivity.
House Republican leaders have spent much of the year highlighting the party’s advances in recruiting women and minorities, linking a diverse slate of candidates to their success in flipping control of the lower chamber last year. And they retain high hopes of expanding on those gains in the 2024 elections.
But that image-shaping campaign was dealt a hard blow this week when Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) gave voice to bigoted sentiments, prompting rebukes from Republican leaders and sparking warnings from some rank-and-file members that the party’s efforts to attract more minorities just got more difficult.
“It makes it very tough,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said. “We want to be a big tent; we want to have diversity in our party; and it makes it difficult to do that when those types of comments are made.”
Tuberville stirred a firestorm of controversy on Monday, when he told CNN that white nationalists — a group defined as “militant white people who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation,” according to Merriam-Webster — are not inherently racist.
“That’s your opinion,” he told host Kaitlan Collins, adding that a white nationalist “is an American.”
The remarks were widely denounced by senators in both parties, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who pushed back by declaring white supremacy to be “simply unacceptable.”
Amid the outcry, Tuberville changed his tune, stipulating that white nationalists “are racists.”
Across the Capitol, Crane sparked his own uproar on Thursday evening, when he referred to African Americans as “colored people” while promoting an “anti-woke” proposal on the House floor.
The highly derogatory comment drew an immediate response from Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), a former Black Caucus chair, who asked for the remarks to be stricken from the official congressional record — a request that was granted.
Crane later issued a statement asserting that he “misspoke,” and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), after deeming the remarks “not acceptable,” said he would “take him at his word.” But some Democrats want Crane to go further, to issue an apology, and Beatty said Friday that she’s not buying Crane’s slip-of-the-tongue explanation.
“It’s definitely part of a political strategy,” she said. “This is all about elections.”
Race has always been a delicate — and highly charged — issue on Capitol Hill, frequently dividing the parties in debates over thorny topics like voting rights, criminal justice and the role of the federal government in confronting historic systems of abuse and discrimination.
But the polarization rose to new heights under former President Trump, who stirred countless race-based controversies, including a show of support for the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and for similar groups that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Many Democrats openly accused Trump, the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary, of being a racist.
In that context, Democrats wasted no time this week assailing the incendiary remarks from Tuberville and Crane, saying they reflect a broader — and highly toxic — GOP strategy of using racially loaded rhetoric to energize conservative base voters, who tend to be white. In this case, the Democrats say, Republicans went even further.
“I’m sure they do this to rile up their base,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), another former head of the Congressional Black Caucus. “They know what they’re doing, but I think it’s a real moral disgrace. … These are worse than dog whistles.”
The dust-up involving Crane came during a days-long debate over a major defense policy bill, which passed through the House on Friday after McCarthy agreed to add dozens of conservative amendments. Among the additions were several proposals to block the Pentagon from implementing so-called diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, which are designed to promote cultural understanding among service members from different walks of life.
Republicans have bashed DEI initiatives as a form of “social experiment” that will weaken the military’s fighting prowess. Beatty countered that Crane’s insensitive comments are just the latest evidence that DEI programs are valuable in any work environment.
“Through DEI, you learn about civility and how to get along,” she said.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) agreed, arguing that any troubles Republicans have in appealing to minority voters are derived not only from their rhetoric, but legislative priorities like those revealed in the defense bill.
“It’s loaded up on changes that would create burdens that fall most heavily on minority families and service members. It’s not implicit anymore, it’s expressed,” he said. “So they might talk about inclusion, but at every turn they’re going in a completely different direction.”
Most Republicans, meanwhile, have rejected the idea that their party promotes racial inequality in any form. While condemning the comments from Tuberville and Crane, they’re also dismissing them as simple blunders, or at least episodes that are irrelevant to the economic concerns faced by voters outside the Beltway.
“We live in an amazing country, and while there are racists, like there are pedophiles, that’s not what defines us,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said. “What I hear back home is concern about real life. When I say ‘real life,’ I’m not saying that [racist rhetoric] is not important. But I’m just saying back home, in a minority district, what I get calls about are inflation, gasoline prices, obviously housing prices — things like that.”
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) also downplayed the week’s racially-charged controversies, saying Democrats are making political hay in search of election gains.
“The narrative that the Republican Party’s racist is absolute nonsense,” Stewart said. “Can we be better at reaching out to minority communities and recruit more women? Yeah, we can do a better job of that. But … our opponents use it to unfairly define our party. It’s just not true.”
Asked if Tuberville’s white nationalist remarks make that outreach more difficult, Stewart questioned the nefariousness of the term.
“No. 1 is I would say: What is white nationalism? I don’t even know what that means,” he said. “But yeah, when people say things that are awkward, it certainly doesn’t help.”
But in the eyes of many Black lawmakers, the week’s racially charged comments delivered by Republicans reflect a broader lack of empathy for the unique discrimination African Americans have experienced — and continue to face.
Lee described an incident in the last Congress when she was racing to votes in the Capitol from her Cannon office and was blocked from a “members-only” elevator by a white, male tourist who challenged her status as a member of Congress.
“I had my pin on. I said, “This is my pin, look, I’m a member of Congress,’” Lee said, referring to the lapel pins that identify lawmakers around the Capitol complex. “And he said, ‘Who’d you steal that pin from?’”