As Republicans begin to chart a hopeful path forward to electoral success in 2020, they should start by taking a sober look back at the 2018 midterm elections. Specifically, they should reflect on the words of outgoing congresswoman Mia Love.
Love was the only black female Republican in Congress until her narrow election loss in November. In her concession speech, Love said that the midterm elections “shined a spotlight” on the party’s problems with minority voters. Minorities stay with Democrats, she said, because Republicans “never take minority communities . . . and citizens into their homes and into their hearts.”
The midterms did indeed shine a light on Republicans’ problems with minorities. But if you shine that light in the right places, the ways in which the party can begin to address those problems also become apparent. As Love suggested, it starts with being present in minority communities and making minorities feel listened to and welcomed.
That’s exactly what Rick Scott did while running for U.S. Senate in Florida. As governor, Scott was attentive to the concerns of his state’s 1.2 million Puerto Rican residents, including tens of thousands who fled the U.S. territory in the wake of two devastating hurricanes in 2017. Scott visited Puerto Rico eight times in 2017 and welcomed evacuees into Florida by creating airport resource centers where they could immediately receive housing and health-care referrals, school placement, and even driver’s licenses.
Scott also distanced himself from President Trump, who had suggested that the controversial death-toll numbers from Hurricane Maria had been exaggerated for political purposes. (The estimated death toll ranged from 16, as first reported, to nearly 4,700, reported by Harvard researchers, to nearly 3,000, reported a year later by George Washington University.) After learning some Spanish, Scott cut a Spanish-language television ad telling Puerto Ricans that he’d stand by them and criticizing Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policies that led to children being separated from their families at the border. Scott also avoided a summer campaign rally that Trump headlined, and he rarely mentioned the president’s name in campaign speeches.
Scott made similar overtures to Florida’s other Hispanic communities. He chose a Cuban-American lieutenant governor and was a constant presence in Cuban and Venezuelan neighborhoods across the state.
When Colombia elected a new president last year, Scott was present at his inauguration. That didn’t surprise Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator from south Florida. “Rick Scott is a master of this,” Taddeo told a reporter. “He gets that it’s not just about policies and issues. It’s about being there.”
Scott’s fellow Republican and would-be successor Ron DeSantis didn’t spend as much time in Hispanic communities other than Cuban-heavy South Florida. And whereas Scott distanced himself from Trump, DeSantis went out of his way to embrace the president, even producing a campaign commercial in which he and his young daughter used toy blocks to build a mock-up of Trump’s proposed border wall.
Scott and DeSantis both won narrow elections, but Scott did slightly better among Latino voters. And precinct voting data suggest that it was mainly due to Scott’s success with Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida.
In Puerto Rican–heavy Orange and Osceola Counties, for instance, Scott outperformed DeSantis by nearly 10,000 votes, with most of those extra votes coming from precincts where Hispanics make up one third to one half of registered voters.
In Volusia County, where Hispanics make up 9 percent of registered voters, Scott won nearly 1,000 more votes than DeSantis, even though the county is wholly inside the congressional district DeSantis represented for six years until September. A majority of those extra Scott votes came from the 16 precincts (out of the county’s 125) in which Hispanics make up a quarter or more of voters.
In other words, it seems that on Election Day thousands of Puerto Rican voters checked the box for Scott but not for DeSantis.
I found a similar dynamic in North Carolina.
In 2016, attorney Danny Britt became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win the state’s 13th-district senate seat, earning 55 percent of the vote. The district covers most of Columbus and Robeson Counties on the state’s southern border with South Carolina. Robeson is America’s most racially diverse rural county, with a population that’s approximately one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Native American.
Britt performed even better in 2018, winning 63 percent of the vote. He did so even though Republicans make up just 11 percent of registered voters in the district.
Britt won in part by winning over a strong majority of voters from the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, a state-recognized Native American tribe with 60,000 members.
Like Scott, Britt is a conservative Republican who attracted the support of minority voters by delivering for them in their time of need. When hurricanes devastated southeast North Carolina in the weeks leading up to the 2016 and 2018 elections, Britt was the most visible local leader in Robeson County, organizing relief efforts, donating food, securing funding for the hardest-hit areas, and even roaming flooded areas in his duck-hunting boat to rescue stranded residents.
In November I asked Britt how he, a conservative Republican and self-described “good ol’ boy,” was able to win nearly two-thirds of the vote in such a racially diverse district. “I think when you have a candidate that is seen and is seen working, then a lot of these folks that may have traditionally been neglected, they’re going to come out and support the candidate despite the party that they’re from,” he replied.
In an ad featuring residents talking about Britt, an elderly woman says, “Danny, he treats everyone the same. He could have just stayed at home, but instead he got in his truck, he grabbed a boat, and he went and helped whoever he could find.”
Britt took the same approach after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when he used the skills he’d acquired in the National Guard to rescue people from the ensuing flood. “A lot of folks just really like the idea of somebody that gets out and does rather than says,” he told me.
In 2018, Britt won 8,000 more votes in Robeson County than the Republican directly above him on the ballot, congressional candidate Mark Harris. Those votes may end up making the difference in Harris’s congressional contest, which now seems headed for a do-over in light of a very narrow result and allegations of ballot fraud. Lumbee leaders with whom I spoke suggested that Democrat Dan McCready outperformed Harris among the tribe’s voters because he showed up in their communities more often than Harris.
“I think there are just certain voters who are not going to be taken for granted,” Britt says. They want to know that their candidate is “working” and they want to know that “they’re working for them.”
Neither Scott nor Britt won by altering their core conservative messages. They didn’t have to. The Republican party’s pro-business, socially conservative message appeals to many Hispanic and Native American voters.
But ideology matters less to voters than political professionals often suppose. That’s especially true for new and historically marginalized voters and those enduring personal hardship. While other candidates focused solely on policy and politics, Scott and Britt focused on lending a hand. As Britt told a reporter when Hurricane Florence struck last fall, “In my community right now, taxes and those issues are not as important as hurricane recovery.”
Republicans don’t need to wait for calamity to strike to let minority voters know that they care, nor should they. All they need to do is be present in and responsive to the communities they hope to serve.