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GOP presidential candidates of color walk a 'tightrope' as they discuss race

When former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley held a town hall with CNN, she talked about her family's immigrant experience.

"It was difficult at first," she said. "You know we were the only Indian family. We weren't white enough to be white and not black enough to be Black."

"They didn't know who we were, what we were or why we were there," Haley said, echoing a common refrain from her campaign speeches.

Haley also talked about how these experiences informed decisions she made as governor — including her decision to remove a Confederate flag from the state capital grounds after a gunman killed nine African Americans during a Bible study session at a predominantly Black church in Charleston.

"It truly was the hardest time of my life," she remembered.

When Haley was asked later about immigration, though, her tone was sharper.

"We will do a national E-verify program," she pledged. "We will defund sanctuary cities once and for all. We will go back to Remain in Mexico, because guess what, no one wants to remain in Mexico. We will keep the provision of Title 42 and instead of catch and release we will go to catch deport."

Adding diversity to a mostly white voting bloc

Candidates of color in the Republican Party like Haley — as well Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott — have been talking about their identities on the trail, while also trying to appeal to a voting base that is less diversethan the country as a whole.

Omar Wasow, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, says they have to navigate their identities in a way that appeals to segments of the Republican Party that have "become increasingly vocal about the idea that this is a white Christian nation."

"A candidate like Nikki Haley has to walk a real tightrope on an issue like immigration," he said, "because she is both the beneficiary of an immigration system that welcomed her family and allowed to her thrive — and at the same time she is embedded in a party that is quite hostile to the idea of an immigration system that is open to the world."

Republican strategist Alex Conant worked with Sen. Marco Rubio, also a child of immigrants, during his 2016 presidential run. He says he doesn't think there is as much internal tension for these candidates because many immigrants who have come to the U.S. legally align with Republicans and want to see tighter immigration rules.

"I don't think that there is necessarily a contradiction in supporting immigration reform and being an immigrant yourself or being the son or daughter of immigrants," Conant said.

When it comes to talking about a candidate's background, Conant said candidates of color should tell their story.

"But they also need to recognize that presidential politics is also about the future," he said. "And so while they need to own their story, they also have to have a clear vision of where they want to lead the country. And ultimately, I think that's what voters base their decision on is this person's agenda consistent with what my hopes and dreams are."

But discussions of race are unavoidable

That doesn't mean that Republican candidates of color can completely avoid discussing race, according to Sara Sadhwani, a politics professor at Pomona College.

She says there was a time when Republican candidates could shy away from these issues, but that's not true anymore.

"And I think when we are in this time period in which a very mobilized faction of the MAGA/Trump conservatives are espousing this type of white grievance politics," she explained. "I think they are going to have questions for Republican candidates of color about how loyal they will actually be to the party platform that they want to see advanced."

Tim Scott, who is the first Black Republican from the South to be elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, has long tried to thread that needle as a lawmaker and now as a presidential candidate.

During an appearance on The View recently, the senator from South Carolina dismissed the idea that systemic racism continued to stand in the way of progress in Black communities.

"The fact of the matter is that we've had an African American president, an African American vice president," Scott said. "We've had two African Americans be secretaries of state. ... I am going to suggest that the fact of the matter is that progress in America is palpable. It can be measured in generations."

He also said he didn't think the Republican Party, in particular, is standing in the way of racial progress.

"It's not Republicans or Democrats. Frankly both sides of the aisle can do a better job on the issue of race. And frankly my side of the aisle is doing a fabulous job of making progress."

Running for second place?

While these candidates are showcasing some diversity in the party's leadership, it's unclear what effect they will actually have on the party itself, as well as voters next year.

Wasow said these candidates could potentially help the Republican Party appeal to more voters of color, many of whom might be offended by segments of the party's embrace of white grievance politics.

"There is this real tension of how to try and grow the coalition to be a party that is changing with America and at the same time hold on to an older base that feels in some cases really angry about how America is changing," he said.

Sadhwani said it's hard to ignore the fact that the Republican presidential field is currently being led by white men — overwhelmingly by former President Donald Trump. She said these candidates are careful about how they navigate race on the trail, it's unclear what effect that will have on voters.

"It's just unclear if the Republican voter base is actually going to respond and receive that in a way that will get them into the top spot on the slate," she said.

Sadhwani said most of these candidates of color, however, could be a smart pick for the second spot on the ticket. With Trump in the lead by double digits of nearly every national poll, this field could be running for vice president.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.