WASHINGTON >> As Republicans took control of an unprecedented 69 of 99 statehouse chambers in the midterm elections, they did not rely solely on a bench of older white men. Key races hinged on the strategic recruitment of women and minorities, many of them first-time candidates who are now learning the ropes and joining the pool of prospects for higher office.
They include Jill Upson, the first black Republican woman elected to the West Virginia House; Victoria Seaman, the first Latina Republican elected to the Nevada Assembly; Beth Martinez Humenik, whose win gave Republicans a one-seat edge in the Colorado Senate; and Young Kim, a Korean-American woman who was elected to the California Assembly, helping to break the Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature.
In Pennsylvania, Harry Lewis Jr., a retired black educator, won in a new House district that was expected to be a Democratic stronghold; he printed his campaign materials in English and Spanish. Of the 12 Latinos who will serve in statewide offices across the nation in 2015, eight are Republican.
“This is not just rhetoric – we spent over $6 million to identify new women and new candidates of diversity and bring them in,” said Matt Walter, the executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Most of these chambers were flipped because there was a woman or a person of diverse ethnicity in a key targeted seat.”
The wins, by candidates carefully chosen to challenge the traditional notion of the Democratic base, bode well for Republicans in future elections. They had a net gain of 59 women in state legislatures; Democrats lost 63 women. Republicans added 10 Latinos; Democrats lost five. Republicans reported 17 newly elected blacks; a comparable figure for Democrats was not available. In 2008, only about 31 percent of women in state legislatures were Republicans; in 2015, that figure will rise by 8 percentage points.
Sarah Maestas Barnes, 34, was raised in a working-class, Democratic, Latino household and has made a legal career of helping disabled clients win benefits. She also beat a Democratic incumbent to help Republicans secure a majority in the New Mexico House for the first time in six decades.
When she arrived in Washington on Nov. 20 for a training session held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, she was surprised that only three other Republicans were in attendance. “I just would have assumed that there would have been more here,” she said.
Democrats point to the larger context, noting that an overwhelming majority of minorities and women serving as legislators are Democrats, and arguing that the recent net gains by Republicans were a function of their huge wins overall. In other words, Democrats say, Democratic women lost because Democrats lost, not because the party’s appeal to women faltered. And despite the gains, the share of Republican legislators who are women will still be lower than it was in 1993.
But even some Democrats say Republicans have outclassed them, strategically speaking, in state-level politics. For example, two Democratic candidates for the Nevada Assembly, including Seaman’s opponent, were disqualified over residency requirements. Republican gains with Latino candidates particularly stung.
“The midterms were a wake-up call that this is something we need greater focus and resources around, and not just simply to take for granted and believe that we have some sort of monopoly on minority elected officials,” said Nick Rathod, a former Obama administration official who leads a new organization, the State Innovation Exchange, that will seek to bolster liberal policies and candidates and to counter the success of conservative state-focused groups.
The Republican State Leadership Committee introduced its recruitment effort, the Future Majority Project, in 2011, calling on state leaders and political groups – as well as less partisan organizations like the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the National Association of Women Business Owners – to help identify potential candidates. Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada led the effort. The director, Neri Martinez, acted as a cheerleader and consultant, helping assuage fears and pairing candidates with mentors.
Barnes said she had not questioned her identification as a Democrat until she was exposed to the New Mexico Legislature while acting as an advocate for descendants of Spanish land grant holders, of whom she is one. She was not impressed by what she viewed as Democratic orthodoxy.
“The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he just disregarded me,” she said. “He didn’t care about my issue. I spent the rest of the session kind of learning the process. I learned how the Democrats were doing everything, and the Republicans were in the minority. I was like: ‘Why aren’t you listening to these Republicans? They have some really good ideas, especially with respect to job creation.’ They weren’t interested in those ideas because they were Republican ideas, and that really bothered me.”
Barnes changed her party registration in late 2010 or early 2011, and when her family moved to Albuquerque a short time later, she sought out Republican groups, thinking she would help with voter drives and show people that “not every Republican is like the stereotypical Republican – older, white, male.”
The first time she showed up at a county party meeting, Conrad James, an African-American state representative who lost his seat to a Democrat in 2012 and won it back this year, asked if she would consider running for office. That, plus a newspaper article on New Mexico’s persistently low ranking in measures of child welfare, helped make up her mind.
It is not clear yet where the new Republican elected officials fall on the ideological spectrum. Several who were interviewed for this article, including Barnes, said they were focused on economic issues like job creation, not social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Barnes said that she had made it clear to party leaders that she would entertain good ideas no matter which party floated them, and that she had been promised the freedom to vote her conscience.
It is equally unclear how far the new Republicans will advance politically. Barnes swore that she could not imagine running for a higher office than state representative. The mother of two girls, ages 4 and 6, Barnes widened her eyes in dismay when she heard an experienced legislator say during a panel discussion that her children had stopped expecting her to be home for their birthdays.
But when the time came to ask questions, motherhood was not on Barnes’ mind. How, she wanted to know, could she land the committee assignment she wanted most?
“Tell them,” a panelist advised, “you helped them win this majority.”