A record number of Black candidates are running on GOP tickets this midterm season. Here’s why that matters

The 2022 midterm elections have drawn a record number of Black Republican candidates running for Congress. It’s a remarkable turn in an election season marred by the increasing embrace of racist rhetoric and policies by GOP lawmakers and candidates.

The National Republican Congressional Committee says 28 Black candidates have made it past the nomination process this election season, down from 80 at the start. By contrast, there are just three Black Republicans currently in Congress — the largest number to serve simultaneously since Reconstruction. During Reconstruction, it was fairly common to have five to seven Black Republicans in Congress at a time, according to Theodore Johnson, a fellow at the policy think tank New America.

Watch the conversation between the PBS NewsHour’s Nicole Ellis and Theodore Johnson in the player above.

If elected, this year’s Black Republican candidates could break those Reconstruction records. The difference this time is the demography of the voters supporting them. Black Republicans that ran during reconstruction were often voted in by newly enfranchised Black men, Johnson said, adding that Black Republicans today are being voted in by a predominantly white conservative base.

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The large number of Black candidates this election season, despite the increasingly racist climate, likely results from the sweeping success of the MAGA movement, according to Johnson. It is easier, he said, for minority candidates to win primaries when a party is captured by a movement, “because MAGA red speaks louder than the color of one’s skin.”

The increase in Black GOP candidates comes at a time when Republican candidates are increasingly embracing racist policies and rhetoric. One notable recent example was Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who last month suggested that Black Americans support crime.

Many Black Republican candidates are trying to dissociate themselves from that kind of rhetoric by excusing remarks about Black people as a group as examples of failed Democratic policies, Johnson said. Others agree with the rhetoric, seeing themselves as exceptional and therefore exempt from such remarks.

Black voters, Johnson said, are adept at discerning the dog whistles of racist rhetoric. And polling indicates that even when a Black Republican is on the ballot, the vast majority of Black voters still vote Democrat.

A Pew Research survey from August found that 70 percent of registered Black voters said they would vote for the Democratic candidate in the House race in the upcoming election, compared with just 6 percent of registered Black voters who said they would vote for the Republican candidate in the race. On the issues, there is a disconnect between Black voters and GOP stances. A recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey from October, for example, showed that only 14 percent of Black voters believed that the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent — a claim on which many Republicans have been campaigning ahead of the midterms. By contrast, 34 percent of white voters believe the “Big Lie” of a stolen election, according to the same survey.

One issue that does seem to resonate for conservative Black male voters is immigration, in part because of competition for jobs. “There’s an attempt to weaponize that tension between Black folks and Hispanic immigrants in particular,” Johnson said.

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“Some of this rhetoric may resonate with a very small cohort of Black voters, just as it has with a particular cohort of Republican voters. But … in the main, this is pushing Black folks away from the Republican Party,” Johnson said, adding that weaponizing the tension on immigration is “not a winning message.”

The PBS NewsHour’s White House Correspondent, Laura Barrón-López, contributed to this reporting.

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