The historic election wins by Lt. Gov-elect Winsome Sears and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares in Virginia showcased the increasing diversity in the GOP and the party’s success recruiting women and minority candidates to deliver a conservative message of freedom and opportunity.
Ms. Sears, the first black woman elected statewide in Virginia, and Mr. Miyares, the first Hispanic to win statewide in the commonwealth, swept into office with Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in a state that has been trending blue for more than a decade.
The result has been difficult for Democrats to digest. They have heralded themselves as warriors for minority communities and cherished opportunities to boast about breaking through glass ceilings.
Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential race on his way to becoming America’s first black president.
Race and ethnicity issues largely fell by the wayside in this year’s campaigns. Mr. Sears and Mr. Miyares took that Democratic standby off the table, making the race a strictly ideological fight.
Republicans say it is a winning formula for conservatives — and a problem for Democrats.
“When you look at some of these candidates, many of them have compelling stories,” said Republicans strategist Jimmy Keady.
“Whether they are women, minorities, self-made business owners, military veterans, or others, they are normal people who got to where they are because of who they are. Both as Americans and through hard work, not because the government gave them a handout.”
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who helped Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe court Black voters this year in Virginia, said that enlisting diverse candidates wasn’t the same as making inroads with voters of color.
“Just because they are diverse in race does not mean their priorities line up with the community that they look like. When you look at the policy agenda they advocate for, it definitely doesn’t line up with the community where I grew up,” he said.
Mr. Seawright said one candidates’ ethnic background “can’t apply to the whole GOP because we all know that’s not true.”
The national Republicans are convinced otherwise.
In 2020, the House Republicans’ shocking gains in the election were driven by their women and minority candidates.
Republicans have made a concerted effort to recruit diverse candidates.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik’s Elevate PAC has raised more than $3 million to get more GOP women elected to Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
She is set to announce a roster of 2022 candidates on Wednesday.
Another group, Catalyst PAC, describes its mission as recruiting GOP congressional candidates “from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds which aren’t currently well-represented in the ranks of Congressional Republicans.”
In Virginia, the Republicans embraced diversity but steered clear of identity politics. Ms. Sears didn’t run as a Black candidate, and she only captured 16% of the Black vote, according to exit polls.
Ms. Sears said she was on the leading edge of a “red wave” in a recent fund-raising email from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm of the House GOP.
“Hey Fellow Conservative, it’s Winsome Sears, Republican, Marine Corps veteran, and Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor-Elect,” she says in the email that includes a photograph of her trademark look wearing a skirt suit and holding an AR-15 rifle.
“I’ll be blunt — the Democrats didn’t think it could be done, but our recent Conservative VICTORY in Virginia has launched a HUGE RED WAVE across our nation. The Radical Left is quaking, Fellow Conservative,” she says in the email.
Ms. Sears, who was born in Jamaica, previously served as the first Black Republican woman and first female veteran in the state’s General Assembly. She has arguably broken more barriers than most in her lifetime, but she mostly downplayed the race while advancing her political career.
“I’m telling you that what you are looking at is the American Dream,” Ms. Sears said in her election night speech. “In case you haven’t noticed, I am Black. And I have been Black all my life, but that’s not what this is about.”
Democrats have used race as a wedge issue in the past, but political analysts say it is harder to make them stick when running against candidates of color.
Ms. Sears, who represented the Norfolk area in the state legislature, ran as a conservative. She pushed for tax cuts, school vouchers, and backed abortion restrictions. She promised to defend gun rights and support law enforcement by raising the pay of state troopers and police officers.
She also called for a historic investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which won praise from former Gov. Doug Wilder, the nation’s first black governor.
Still, Ms. Sears quickly become the target of some liberal commentators, and the hero of conservatives, as her candidacy shapes a new generation of the GOP.
Former ESPN host Jemele Hill and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson have linked her to white supremacy.
Mr. Miyares called the charge “laughable,” adding that such attacks are likely to drive more people to the GOP.
“I think what’s happened with Winsome is horrible,” Mr. Miyares said. “As the Democratic Party has gotten more secular and more far to the left and more woke, it’s driving people away towards the Republican party.”
For some, the fact that Ms. Sears’ did not make race the centerpiece of her campaign is one of the more inspiring aspects of her win.
“I was very proud when she said that she doesn’t want to be recognized as that first Black lady elected as a lieutenant governor,” said Astrid Gamez, 60, of Reston, Virginia. “She has [achieved] the American Dream. That’s something very remarkable that you can do whatever you want in this country if you work hard.”
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
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