Why Don’t White Voters Elect Minority Reps to Congress?

Janie Boschma, National Journal, January 30, 2015

It’s an enduring contrast in Congress: Minority legislators are much less likely to represent districts where whites constitute a majority of the population than whites are to hold districts where racial minorities comprise the majority.

In the new Congress, white representatives hold 44 of the 117 House seats where minorities equal a majority of the population, a Next America analysis has found. That’s 38 percent.

By contrast, minority lawmakers represent only 15 of the 318 districts where whites represent a majority of the population. That’s just 5 percent.

That vast difference underscores the continued limits on the progress of minorities in the House, even as their overall numbers increase within the United States. All 11 of the incoming minority freshmen represent districts with a high proportion of minorities, often including sizable Latino populations.

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Experts say many factors contribute to this imbalance. One is that minority politicians themselves often feel most comfortable seeking congressional seats in districts with sizable minority populations. The power of incumbency reinforces that inclination. As long as incumbents, most of whom today are white, can prove they are responsive to their constituents and win the trust and support of their minority communities, minority politicians often see little opening to launch a challenge. As more white incumbents eventually retire, Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says he expects nonwhite politicians to take advantage of those opportunities, especially in majority-minority districts.

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The evidence suggests it may be easier for minority Republicans to attract support from white voters than it is for minority Democrats. Only 14 of the 88 minority members in the House are Republicans. But they are eight of the 15 minority House members holding majority white seats. They especially have an edge in districts that are at least 70 percent white. Of those eight seats held by minority Republicans, six are in districts that are 70 percent or more white.

Vargas said the Republican Party has done a considerably better job than Democrats at recruiting and supporting minority candidates in mostly white districts, using a strategy that emphasizes what Vargas calls “crossover appeal”–their ability to appeal to voters outside their demographic. Republicans also tend to fare better in majority-white districts in general, securing 199 of 263 such districts in the new House, as a recent Next America analysis shows.

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