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Losing Ground

How Right-Wing Candidates of Color Delivered the House to Republicans

It should alarm Democrats that these midterm contenders delivered big wins for the GOP, all without moderating their MAGA identity.

Tojo Andrianarivo/Getty Images
Oregon Representative-elect Lori Chavez-DeRemer was just one of many candidates to buck the political trends of the 2022 midterms and pick up a critical House seat for the GOP.

In the days following the 2022 midterm elections, conventional wisdom had it that the much-predicted “red wave” never materialized because too many GOP candidates ran too far to the right on too many issues—abortion, gun control, election denialism, and connections to Donald Trump and January 6.  As Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin explained, “The message on [Election Day] was the average person is done voting for extremism.”

This consensus holds for the most closely watched races, where Republicans did appear to have this kind of “candidate problem.” But beneath the surface, there was an undercurrent that went badly underappreciated—one that may churn the electoral waters for years to come. In the House, where the new Republican majority was secured by wresting a handful of seats from Democratic control, one group of conservative candidates won decisively without moderating their politics.  

A number of Black, Latina, and Latino candidates, all of them sharply conservative, ran strong races while avoiding the extremist label. Seven of these will be victorious Republican newcomers to the House, four of whom won seats previously held by Democrats. 

These candidates have little in common with figures such as Kanye West and Herschel Walker, whose provocations and bombast have attracted far more media attention. All are relatively young and new to national politics, positioning themselves as Washington outsiders running against out-of-touch liberal elites. Many have military or law enforcement service or connections, allowing them to assert law and order bona fides without having to resort to dog-whistling. 

For example, both John James, who flipped a congressional district in the Detroit suburbs, and Wesley Hunt, who triumphed in a newly drawn district in the eastern suburbs of Houston, are Black West Point graduates who ran heavily on their record of military service. And then there is Air Force veteran Anna Paulina Luna, whose campaign was described as “pro-life, pro-God, pro-gun, and anti-socialist,” who flipped a House seat in the Tampa, Florida, suburbs. All were endorsed by Trump, and all are largely aligned with Trump on substantive issues.  

Many of these candidates are also small-business owners or political newcomers who otherwise ran on tangible private-sector success, valorizing free market ideas and entrepreneurial drive without seeming captive to corporate interests. For example, 34-year-old George Santos ran as “a seasoned Wall Street financier and investor” and a “first generation American born in Queens” (his parents immigrated from Brazil). Santos, who is openly gay, identified himself as a “MAGA candidate,” has publicly supported Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and compared abortion to slavery. Yet his opponent’s efforts to fix the extremist label on him largely failed among moderate voters, and he flipped a House seat in a Democratic-leaning district on Long Island. 

Similarly, both Juan Ciscomani in the northeast suburbs of Phoenix and Monica De La Cruz in South Texas flipped seats held by Democrats while leaning heavily on their biographies as immigrant strivers poised to take on Washington special interests. 

While none of the candidates inhabit the far-right flank of the GOP, none of them are moderates by any stretch of the imagination. All were dedicated Trump supporters right from the start of their political careers. Indeed, Representative-elect Wesley Hunt was one of the few elected officials who immediately endorsed Trump when he announced his plan to run for president in 2024; Santos was in Washington, D.C., for the infamous Stop the Steal rally on January 6, 2021. 

In short, they were exemplary envoys of the defining narratives of the contemporary Republican Party, holding dependably conservative politics while still appealing to some moderate voters; embracing their minoritized identities while still winning in majority-white districts.  

There were 12 Republican congressional candidates who lost in the general election despite fitting this same general profile: young people of color who ran on their biographies as political outsiders with strong law enforcement or military credentials, business experience, and a deep commitment to their Christian faith and family. These candidates tended to be in districts that were more favorable to their Democratic opponents, several of whom had the advantages of incumbency. But we should expect many of these candidates to run again.

No race better tells this story than Oregon’s 5th congressional district. Newly redrawn after 2020, the district extends from the southern suburbs of Portland through a series of small cities in the Willamette Valley—several with large Latino communities—and east to the resort communities of the Cascade Mountains. Democrats hold a modest voter registration edge in the district, which by one estimate would have voted for Biden by a nine-point margin. Republicans had not picked up a congressional seat in Oregon since 1994, and for more than a decade, the GOP has only held a single seat in the state’s delegation.

The Republican who entered the race, Lori Chavez-DeRemer, had solid right-wing credentials: a Trump delegate in 2020, she supports the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, is hostile to gun control, and loudly condemns “critical race theory.” Her campaign issued dark warnings about the “radical left” and called for strong border enforcement and increased funding of the police. 

To understand how she withstood the charges of extremism that damaged other conservative candidates in the election, we must attend to the biography she introduced to voters and the ways it secured her populist appeal.

Chavez-DeRemer ran openly on her life story as the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. Rather than alienating her from Republican voters, her story positioned her as an exemplar of the American dream, an aspiration she insisted was being destroyed by antifa radicals in Portland and career politicians in Washington. She leaned heavily on her experience as a responsible small city mayor, a wife, a parent, and a local business owner who made her own way—the epitome of the self-made American, a profile embraced by Republican leadership. 

As she told Politico in August, “That balance of a woman, of a Hispanic woman, of a conservative, a business owner, a mayor, a mom, all those seem to be where the party was headed under this tent of diversity” within the party. A record 42 Latina Republicans competed for House seats in 2022, compared to only two in 2008. 

Indeed, it was Chavez-DeRemer who effectively fashioned herself a populist candidate representing the interests of everyday voters, while casting her opponent, Jamie McLeod Skinner, as “an out of touch San Francisco–area politician pretending to be an Oregonian.” Chavez-DeRemer effectively flipped the dominant racial vernacular of politics, in which her biography as a minoritized outsider burnished her credentials as an anti-elitist and everyday champion of voters in a district that is more than 75 percent white.

This turn of events may seem surprising. Many GOP candidates employed divisive tactics around a broad range of racial justice issues, with some Republicans openly embracing white nationalist rhetoric (such as “great replacement theory”) and running campaigns animated by themes of racial demonization around immigration, crime, and “wokeness.”  Yet at the same time, these politics have not prevented Republicans from attracting both new candidates and new voters of color. 

The question itself has been subject to relatively little debate or discussion. Indeed, Democratic strategists and liberal pundits have long presumed that racist and nativist campaigns and policies supported by the GOP in general and Trump in particular would profoundly limit conservative support among nonwhite voters. This assumption is rooted in the idea that to identify as nonwhite will inevitably lead one to embrace a set of liberal anti-discrimination politics, antipathy to conservatism, and to identify as a Democrat.  

This supposition has long led pundits to argue that the nation’s growing demographic pluralism will inevitably produce a more progressive electorate. It was the argument behind liberal political analysts John Judis and Ruy Tuxiera’s influential 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority.

The other side of this political-racial framing is the widely accepted idea that the modern right in toto is characterized by a singular commitment to white racial domination, whether because of status anxiety, irrational beliefs, or material interest. Seen this way, any incorporation of people of color in its ranks can only be understood as tokenism, duplicity, and manipulation. And by extension, people of color who do identify as conservative must do so out of false consciousness, internalized bias, or a desire to partake in what W.E.B. Du Bois famously called the “wage” of whiteness.

At various moments, the GOP has tried to alter this racial equation. After Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee issued what came to be colloquially known as the “Autopsy Report,” which declared the aim of changing its image as a “scary” party of “stuffy old men” and to become more diverse and inclusive. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities. But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters.” 

While the report suggested a moderation of some policy positions, especially around immigration, would help achieve this, recent elections have shown that the GOP can diversify its ranks without moderating its politics. In response to this year’s midterms, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel (Mitt Romney’s niece) announced the formation of an “advisory council” focused on “inform[ing] the Republican Party’s 2024 vision and beyond.” Along with Blake Masters, the Trump-endorsed election denier who lost the Arizona Senate race, and Tony Perkins, head of the hard-right anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, a number of people of color are among the group of 12, including John James, Monica De La Cruz, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, Latino Congressman Carlos Gimenez, and Asian American Congresswoman Michelle Steel, nearly all of whom mentioned the growing importance of voters of color to the GOP in the 2022 election cycle in their statements about the new committee.

In fact, over the course of the 2022 midterm elections, the Republican National Committee opened 38 “minority community centers” across 19 states, and claims to have hosted more than 5,000 separate outreach events, ranging from food and toy drives to educational and training events to business roundtables. Groups like the Koch-funded Libre Initiative have a growing profile both among voters and on conservative media. All of these groups share the belief that many more people of color can be won to conservative ideas and commitments and that white conservatives will enthusiastically support candidates of color.

To be clear, large majorities of voters of color consistently reject Republican candidates and appeals. But this is not an absolute bar. Black, Latina, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous communities have never been monolithic in their values and politics. Like all voters, they hold complex and varied political positions. It should hardly be a surprise that some identify with conservative political positions around gender and sexuality; taxes and social benefits; crime and punishment; and perceptions of left-wing menace. 

And even though Democrats continue to enjoy overall advantages among voters of color, Republicans need only break away some of these voters from the Democratic fold to win tight contests, as many of these contenders did. Candidates like Chavez-DeRemer, who appears to have won a sizable number of voters in heavily Latino areas of the district, will accelerate this trend. Such a strategy creates a path forward for the GOP nationally in which it can advance deeply conservative positions that appeal to both its white base and some moderates while continuing to attract candidates and voters of color into the fold.

This is a serious challenge for Democrats to surmount. Voters of color have been moving slowly toward the GOP since Trump’s election in 2016. Meanwhile, Black voter turnout appears to have dropped to its lowest level since 2006. Last week, Biden signaled concerns about the role of voters of color in future presidential contests in an appeal to leaders of the Democratic National Committee to make South Carolina the country’s first primary state and to move both Georgia and Michigan up on the calendar. “You cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color,” Biden wrote, “and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters.” 

But while these changes to the primary calendar would be an important shift for the party, they cannot on their own staunch the bleeding. These midterms may have gone better than expected for Democrats, but they’ve provided ample reason to discourage resting on their laurels and assuming they cracked the code to blunt the GOP’s appeal. Rather than imagining they can simply accuse Republicans of extremism and moderate their views for swing voters, Democrats will have to articulate political visions and concrete policy proposals that address the lived conditions of a large majority of voters of color—not just proclaim themselves the safer alternative.