A handful of incoming blue-state Republican governors took an unusual step for GOP candidates this year: They devoted significant time, energy, and money to campaigning for votes in minority communities. And it looks as if it helped them win—even though they didn't win many minorities' votes.
From Illinois to Massachusetts to Maryland, new Republican governors made serious inroads in urban areas previously considered solid ground for Democrats, a big reason those GOP candidates won. Yet those bumps in support don't appear to have come from the African-American and Hispanic voters targeted by candidates such as Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. But they may have come from middle- and upper-income white voters who liked what they saw in the candidates' strategies.
It's a matter of projecting a candidate's ability to represent the state and universally resonate, according to Buck Cram, a GOP campaign consultant who is now a strategist at the political tech start-up Brigade. "By earnestly campaigning in communities of color they almost certainly will lose, these candidates project an air of inclusion and confidence that moderate, independent voters find refreshing during an age of gridlock and hyper-partisanship," Cram said. "It broadcasts faith in the quality of their message, which can be powerful in communities that have been taken for granted."
Or, as New York Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein once put it, according to Cram: "Campaign in Harlem for votes in Westchester."
Both Baker and Rauner made aggressive and deliberate overtures to minority voters in Boston and Chicago throughout the course of their campaigns—and even beforehand. Rauner and his wife, Diana, have been involved in antipoverty and education reform efforts on Chicago's South Side for years, and Baker took pains to make sure his efforts weren't seen as a last-ditch pitch to woo voters before Election Day.
Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertaccio said Baker's minority outreach strategy was "to do it consistently over time," and added, "He did it somewhat quietly for a time, so when the campaign started to heat up he had already established a network of support."
Then, once the general election rolled around, instead of being an unfamiliar face, Ubertaccio said Baker "was very much welcomed."
Despite Rauner's moves, though, he only won 7 percent of African-American voters, according to Illinois exit polls. That's basically no improvement on previous GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady's showing in 2010. But Rauner did manage to crack 20 percent of the vote in Chicago, narrowly exceeding a goal set during his campaign. He even won one of the city's downtown wards—a mostly white district that Democrats nevertheless typically carry.
In Massachusetts, an improved performance in Boston helped boost Baker to the governorship after his 2010 loss. Baker won 30 percent of the vote citywide and kept Democrat Martha Coakley's winning margin in the city down to 36 percentage points. The most recent GOP candidate to narrow Democrats' margins in Boston to that degree was Mitt Romney, who won just under 33 percent of Boston voters in his 2002 gubernatorial win.
A precinct-level analysis of the Boston results by Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, showed that Baker's bump didn't come from minority-heavy areas, though. Baker improved his performance mostly in white and well-to-do precincts, including those in the Boston suburbs, while Coakley dominated the city's lower-income, majority-minority neighborhoods.
A third GOP candidate, Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (another state without exit poll data), also ran TV ads in his successful race against Democrat Anthony Brown featuring a diverse cast of supporters, including his daughter Jaymi, who is Korean-American, and succeeded in making gains in both the city of Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs.
Hogan won Baltimore County overwhelmingly, 59 percent to 39 percent, over Brown, and the Republican took 22 percent in the city of Baltimore. In comparison, Gov. Martin O'Malley's 2010 reelection campaign held Republicans to an even split in Baltimore County and kept former GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich's performance in Baltimore City down to just 16 percent.
A handful of potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders—including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—have already spent time campaigning and communicating with communities of color, even though the prospect of a short-term electoral payoff may be dicey. Along these lines, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus launched a $10 million effort after the party's 2012 losses to invest in minority outreach staff and establish permanent field offices in cities such as Detroit and Charlotte, N.C.
Rauner and Baker are both major moderates compared with the national GOP—both are pro-choice, for example. But their example could prove important for presidential candidates who don't quite line up with them on every issue. The Republican Party has struggled in the suburbs of growing metro areas such as Philadelphia and Denver in recent presidential elections, one of the reasons those states have tipped against the GOP. Rauner and Baker may not have clawed back many of the minority votes that underpin the Democratic coalition, but they demonstrated that just trying may have its rewards.