In today’s Congress, Republicans are still far more likely than Democrats to be white. But after the midterm elections in November, a record number of Black Republicans could be headed to Capitol Hill.
According to reports, the National Republican Congressional Committee says 81 Black candidates are running on the GOP ticket for the U.S. House in this year’s primaries, a marked increase from the 2020 primary cycle. Not all of these candidates will make it to Congress, though, as a number have already lost their primary elections outright or in runoffs. But it’s likely that, come January, Republicans will have the most Black members serving together in the U.S. House since 1889. The U.S. Senate could also break a record this year: If Republican nominee Herschel Walker defeats Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and Sen. Tim Scott wins his reelection bid in South Carolina, there will be two Black Republicans serving in the upper chamber — the highest number ever.
There wasn’t always a dearth of Black Republican representation in Congress. Seven served in the House in the 43rd (1873-75) and 44th (1875-77) congresses, but following the end of the Reconstruction era, in 1877, declined. This didn’t begin to reverse in earnest until 1995, when two Black Republicans served together in the House again. The number of Black GOP representatives never increased beyond that, though, and many congresses had no Black Republicans at all. Next year will likely be different, however, as at least four Black Republicans — including two incumbents, Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida and Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah — are favored to win seats in the House this fall, according to FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm election forecast. But as you can see in the chart below, representation of Black Republicans still has a ways to go.
Following the end of the Civil War, in 1865, and the official end of slavery later that year, the first Black lawmakers were elected to the House: Jefferson Franklin Long of Georgia and Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina. In total, more than a dozen Black men — all Republicans — served in the House during the Reconstruction period thanks to the newfound political power of emancipated men in the South, who got the right to vote in 1870.
The Reconstruction era was, in short, a time of extraordinary promise when it came to civil rights of Black people and all Americans. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were all ratified during this period, and the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, which expanded eligibility for U.S. citizenship, was enacted. All four provisions were notable in that they helped ensure Black Americans — at least the men — could finally participate in the political process. But this period proved short-lived, as Reconstruction ended abruptly in 1877, and with it, so did the federal government protections that safeguarded Black Americans’ newly won freedoms.
Indeed, a backlash among white Americans gripped the country, and Black men were heavily intimidated and even terrorized when they tried to vote. Many southern states passed laws requiring poll taxes or literacy tests to vote, and what came to be known as Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation across the region and diminished the political clout of Black men. Mississippi even rewrote its state constitution to circumvent the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. Black voter participation fell as a result of these combined efforts, and by the 51st Congress (1889-1891), only three Black Republicans were serving in the House: Reps. Thomas Ezekiel Miller of South Carolina, John Mercer Langston of Virginia and Henry Plummer Cheatham of North Carolina. By March 1901, during the 57th Congress, there were no Black congressmen at all.
This isn’t to say there was no Black representation in Congress in the first half of the 20th century. In 1934, the first Black Democrat was elected to the House, and that number has steadily grown over the years — to nearly 60 today. As I’ve reported previously, though, the dynamics of the two major parties didn’t really start to take shape until around the 1930s, when programs intended to help communities of color — such as those in Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal — ushered in a wave of Black voters’ switching their party loyalty to Democrats.
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told me that Black Americans first became a critical part of the Democrats’ coalition under Roosevelt, as they were more adversely affected by the Great Depression. But it was in the 1960s, Gillespie said, that Black voters became “almost unanimously Democratic,” as that was when the Republican Party started to take more staunchly conservative stances on civil rights issues — Sen. Barry Goldwater, the frontrunner for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, for instance, announced that he would vote against the comprehensive civil rights legislation that the House had passed earlier that year. Fast-forward to today and only two Black Republicans are serving in the House: Donalds and Owens.
In other words, there has long been an opportunity for Republicans to expand their ranks of Black members of Congress, but it wasn’t until recently that the party really began investing in Black candidates, according to Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. She told me that the Republican Party is starting to capitalize on some Black voters’ dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, and that there’s now a larger pool of potential candidates for Republicans to recruit and support.
In fact, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of primary race winners, 13 Black Republicans are guaranteed a spot on the November ballot this year in House races. It’s possible that number could grow, too: John James, for instance, is favored to win the Republican primary for Michigan’s 10th Congressional District in August. And if he does, our forecast gives him a 69 in 100 chance of winning the general election.
What will happen with other Black GOP candidates is less clear, though. Take Jennifer-Ruth Green, an Air Force veteran and political novice running who won the Republican nomination for Indiana’s 1st District. She has currently out-fundraised the incumbent, Democratic Rep. Frank J. Mrvan, but the seat she is vying for has a partisan lean of D+7, which makes this race a challenge. Our forecast, however, still rates this race as competitive and currently gives Green a 31 in 100 chance of winning the general election.
But that’s about it as far as potential Black Republican representation. In total, only a fraction of the 13 Black Republican nominees so far look likely to defeat their Democratic opponents this fall.
|Candidate||District||Race Rating||Chance of winning|
|Wesley Hunt||TX-38||Solid R||>99 in 100|
|Burgess Owens||UT-04||Solid R||>99 in 100|
|Jennifer-Ruth Green||IN-01||Lean D||31 in 100|
|Brian E. Hawkins||CA-25||Likely D||8 in 100|
|Tamika Hamilton||CA-06||Solid D||2 in 100|
|Billy Prempeh||NJ-09||Solid D||2 in 100|
|Aja Smith||CA-39||Solid D||<1 in 100|
|Duke Buckner||SC-06||Solid D||<1 in 100|
|Leon Benjamin Sr.||VA-04||Solid D||<1 in 100|
|Terry T. Namkung||VA-03||Solid D||<1 in 100|
|Darius Mayfield||NJ-12||Solid D||<1 in 100|
|Joe E. Collins III||CA-36||Solid D||<1 in 100|
|Eric J. Brewer||OH-11||Solid D||<1 in 100|
Winning their races is only half the battle for Black Republicans, though, as they often struggle with acceptance within the Republican Party and face challenges in trying to prove their conservative ideological bona fides. In some cases, Wright Rigueur told me, especially if they’re running in districts that are predominately white, they must avoid issues of race and stick to party talking points. “They are very much in line with where the party is and haven’t strayed from the party line,” Wright Rigueur said. She added that they may have slightly more freedom to talk about these issues if they’re running in a district with a more diverse constituency but that, ultimately, they steer clear of “controversial topics on race and racial antagonisms.”
Racism is another factor working against Black Republicans trying to make a name for themselves in the party. Even prominent Black Republicans like Scott, the South Carolina senator chosen to give the party’s response to President Biden’s address to Congress, have reported receiving a barrage of racist comments. Unlike Democratic politicians of color, however, Republicans often downplay racism within their own party. For instance, in a closed-door meeting with colleagues, Scott shared racist voicemails he and his staff had received but publicly declared that “America is not a racist country.”
That said, national Republicans have taken some steps to foster a more diverse delegation. For example, the super PAC American Patriots PAC, which supports conservative candidates, and super PAC American Values First spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Jeremy Hunt, a Black Republican and former Army captain who ran for a Georgia U.S. House seat earlier this year, even though he ultimately lost his primary bid. Some critics viewed this as a fig leaf that obscures the party’s past and current obsession with white grievance politics, but Republicans have hailed the shift as a slow but genuine transformation of a party that was established on an anti-slavery platform and is now attempting to recruit and support candidates of color who could represent and appeal to a broader range of voters.
There’s evidence that these efforts might be working — albeit slowly — too. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump performed slightly better with Black voters than he did in 2016. And, more recently, some polling suggests that Black voters are souring on Biden and are more open to supporting GOP candidates this year.
The Republican Party still has relatively few Black candidates running, though, because at the end of the day, few Black Americans identify as Republicans. This also isn’t exactly a new opportunity, as the GOP has long had the chance to peel socially conservative Black voters away from the Democratic Party, but that has proved easier said than done.
“Since 1964 or so, the Republican Party has had an image problem on issues related to race, and when that gets brought up, it often gets dismissed by members of the party as being mere ‘identity politics,’” Gillespie said. “And because of that, the Republican Party hasn’t really been able to reach out to Black voters and potential candidates in a meaningful way.”
So don’t lose the forest for the trees. While the number of Black Republicans elected to Congress this year might be a historic milestone, it wouldn’t change the fact that Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic and that Republican officials — and their base — are still overwhelmingly white. In other words, the Republican Party still has a long way to go.