Ever since Mitt Romney’s loss, Republicans have been grappling with his anemic performance with minority voters and how to appeal to an electorate that’s becoming less and less white. Tuesday’s results provided both a cautionary tale and a possible way forward.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s success in attracting non-white voters should serve as a model for Republican candidates in national elections, but Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s failure with those voters embodies the GOP’s problems in adapting to a more diverse electorate.
Christie won 51 percent of Latino voters on Tuesday, according to exit polls. He also won 21 percent of African-American voters, helping him defeat Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by 22 percentage points.
That was a considerable improvement from his successful 2009 campaign, in which he narrowly defeated embattled Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine. In that contest he lost the Latino voters by 33 points and only won 9 percent of African-Americans.
What was the difference? Christie’s intensive outreach in minority communities and willingness to tack to the middle and compromise .
Christie was willing to campaign in what might have been considered the Democrat’s home turf. On Monday, the governor campaigned in Union City, New Jersey, which has a population that’s 85 percent Hispanic and voted overwhelmingly for President Obama last year.
“[The] challenge left is to prove to all the folks who say we can’t come together and work together, that we can’t do things together regardless of party,” Christie asked the crowd. “Are you ready to prove them wrong tomorrow?”
He recently broke with other GOP governors and backed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and accepted federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage, money provided for under Obamacare.
Christie’s work provides a lesson to Republican candidates for national office. The racial makeup New Jersey’s electorate is almost identical to the nation’s. Republicans should pay attention: In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won less than three in ten Latino voters against President Obama. Romney lost Asian-American voters by a nearly 3-1 margin, and hardly registered a blip among African Americans.
Virginia has also become much more diverse, but Ken Cuccinelli failed to make inroads with non-white voters in his loss to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli won only 8 percent of African-Americans, exit polls showed. And he lost Latino voters by 37 percentage points to McAuliffe, according to a poll conducted by Latino Decisions for America’s Voice and People for the American Way, two liberal groups.
In contrast to Christie, Cuccinelli took hardline stances on immigration and Obamacare. That endeared him to conservative base voters, but prevented him from expanding his coalition.
Latino voters were incensed by Cuccinelli’s remarks in 2012, in which he compared rat extermination to immigration enforcement. Here’s what the Washington Post reported:
Pedro Delcid, 40, perceived the remark in a slightly different, but equally derogatory, way. “This man was talking bad about our people. He said we reproduce like rats,” said Delcid, who lives in Manassas. “This is the one issue that brought me here today. I have an issue with the way he talks about immigrants.”
Turning off minority voters was the last thing Cuccinelli could afford to do. During the last gubernatorial race in 2009, whites made up 78 percent of the Virginia electorate, according to exit polls. This year, that percentage fell to 72 percent.
Christie’s performance was a case study for Republicans in how not to be despised by non-white voters. Cuccinelli’s campaign, on the other hand, fell into the same traps that have doomed Republicans in the last two elections.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.