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TAMPA, Fla. - The House Republican Conference is not known for its racial diversity, but after an influx of candidates during the past two cycles, there could be more black Republicans in Congress next year than at any time since the post-Reconstruction era.
Eight black candidates have been nominated in House Republican primaries so far this year, and a ninth could be added tonight in Arizona, where Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker is making a second bid for Congress in the new 9th district.
The GOP had 14 black nominees in 2010, a banner year for the party, when Reps. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Allen West (Fla.) became the first black Republicans in Congress since 2003. They became high-profile members of the freshman class and there's a chance they'll be joined next year by at least one more GOP rising star, Mia Love.
"There's always been a good number in any election cycle [that] at least get into the primary," former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said of black Republican candidates. "The battle's always been making it through the primary."
Love, the mayor of a small town in Utah, burst on to the scene in April at the state party convention, where she surprised many and secured the nomination without the need for a runoff in a large field of candidates. She now has the best chance of the nine candidates of being elected, and her potential to be the first black Republican woman ever in Congress has led to extensive national media attention.
That will continue tonight, when she takes the stage for a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention. The program, packed tighter after Monday's program was canceled, will feature some of the party's other minority elected officials and candidates. They include Scott; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the first female Hispanic governor; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Texas Senate nominee Ted Cruz. Former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, who switched parties to join the GOP, is also speaking.
"It's important to note that voters are voting in line with their values," Scott said in an interview today. While the number of black Republicans in Congress is increasing, the party still struggles to win majority-minority or minority-influenced districts. Scott said the GOP needs minority voters "to vote by their value systems instead of voting on some cultural or societal norm."
Apart from Parker and Love, who are running in competitive districts, the nominees are facing entrenched incumbents in safe Democratic districts. They include: Joseph McCray and Virginia Fuller in California; Wayne Winsley in Connecticut; Chris Fields in Minnesota; Robert Mansfield in Pennsylvania; Bill Marcy in Mississippi; and Travis Washington in Texas.
"What we've seen as a trend line going back to 2009, 2010 has been more and more individuals making it through the primary process and actually winding up being the nominee," Steele, who was the first black statewide elected official in Maryland, said of candidates at the federal and state levels.
If Love defeats Rep. Jim Matheson (D), and Scott and West are re-elected, the next Congress would feature the largest number of black Republicans since the 1890s. Just five were elected in the 20th century, including two in the 1990s who served one overlapping term. Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who served from 1994 to 2002, was the last black Republican in Congress until West and Scott were elected in 2010.
The trend since the 19th century has been the opposite for Democrats, who now have 41 black House Members who largely hail from majority-minority or minority-influenced districts.
Republicans are working at the state level to recruit more minority candidates who could eventually run for Congress. Despite some successes, the process is still slow-going, said Frank Donatelli, chairman of GOPAC, which recruits and trains candidates at the state legislative level.
"Admittedly, we have less than a stellar record in getting black Republicans elected, but it's obviously something that we need to continue to work on," Donatelli said. "I continue to believe that our message of job creation, economic growth and optimism is eventually a winning message, and could penetrate a much greater segment of the African-American community than Republicans are getting right now."
Winning over black voters is an even greater struggle for the party this cycle. President Barack Obama, who in 2008 became the first black presidential nominee from a major party, won 95 percent of the black vote, which was 13 percent of the national electorate. Black voters have given Democrats at least 82 percent of the vote nationally in every presidential election over the past 40 years.
Steele said the 2010 elections were a step in the right direction for the party, when, along with West and Scott, Haley was elected as the first female governor of South Carolina - and the second Indian-American governor after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. In the same cycle, Jennifer Carroll became the first black person and first woman elected lieutenant governor of Florida.
In late 2011, Herman Cain briefly led in the presidential polls of the Iowa Republican caucuses. And next year, T.W. Shannon will become Oklahoma's first black state House speaker.
But, "enormous challenges" remain for the party, said Steele, who made recruiting minority candidates and convention delegates a top priority when he took the reins of the RNC in 2009.
"We need to start winning in communities where the black or Hispanic minority population is a larger percentage of the voting population," Steele said. "It's not just, let's elect Allen West and we feel like we've done something. Allen West is the tip of the spear."