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Black Republicans walk a fine line toward election victory

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republicans were rejoicing after this week's elections around the country, most notably because of the party's victory in Virginia, where first-time candidate, the private equity investor Glenn Youngkin, became the first Republican to be elected governor there in more than a decade. But there were some notable developments for Black candidates that we want to talk about. In Virginia, Winsome Sears became the first woman and the first Black woman elected to the office of lieutenant governor in that state. And there were other victories for Black Republicans in Virginia, New York state and Kentucky.

We wanted to talk more about what these victories could mean for the future of the Republican Party, so we've called somebody who's written about this. Leah Wright Rigueur is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The Loneliness Of The Black Republican." And she is with us now.

Professor Wright Rigueur, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So are Black Republicans perhaps a little less lonely?

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: (Laughter) I think they're about - probably about the same degree of loneliness. But what makes this unique, what makes this interesting and what makes this worthy of attention is that instead of being kind of in the ranks of the Republican Party but not at the policymaking level, they're now in policymaking roles. That's a big deal.

MARTIN: So let's focus on Virginia. Winsome Sears is a very interesting candidate, a former Marine. Her campaign literature features the kinds of imagery that we've seen in very conservative white candidates, you know, posing with a long gun, touting her military service, making sure that everybody knows that she is, quote, "a legal immigrant." But she's also a former state delegate. She was elected from a majority Black legislative district. Her campaign points out that no Republican had done that in Virginia since 1865. She was the first and still the only Black Republican woman elected to the House, and she very much embraced her Black identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINSOME SEARS: In case you haven't noticed, I am Black, and I have been Black all my life.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: In her victory speech, she talked about fully funding HBCUs. Does her profile as a candidate and her election say anything to you?

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So I think what is really interesting and important for us to consider is how she won because we actually know that Black Republicans often run for office. They don't often win, and there are a number of reasons why they do that. But the two biggest is that they very rarely get support from the party apparatus. But also, they very rarely have the credentials within their communities that allow them to successfully run.

So what we see with somebody like her is that she has both of them. She has the backing of the Republican Party, and she has the backing to some extent of her community. The way that she does it, though, is that she doesn't make any waves. She doesn't do anything that would put her at really dramatic odds with these two varying communities. So she manages to walk a tightrope even as she's incredibly partisan and in this incredibly partisan moment.

MARTIN: What does this say? Does this say that Black candidates can be successful if they are extremely conservative as Winsome Sears is or Black Republican candidates if they are extremely conservative? Or does it say that - what does it say?

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: There's no political reward for them being outspoken critics of their party. You know, I'd point to someone who in a little - in some ways, actually mirrors the example of Winsome Sears, and that's Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican migrants, came up through the military, had political aspirations but had a very different approach that involved critiquing his party. And increasingly, those critiques pushed him out of the limelight in terms of being a spokesperson or a figurehead for his party to the point where it sent a very loud message to African Americans within the Republican Party, which is that if you're going to critique the party, you're not going to be seen as an authentic Republican.

However, if you are willing to stay the party line and, at the very least, not speak out against it, there may be political rewards. There may be a pathway for you. But the other side of that, too, is positioning yourself in a way that, at the very least, doesn't alienate Black voters. There is a lesson here, not just for the Republican Party. In the Republican Party - and one of the lessons is how to maximize off tension between the Democratic Party and a multiracial coalition of voters.

But there's a message here for the Democratic Party about kind of the sanctity of these coalitions that they have relied on for a very long time. Black voters are instrumental. They're a huge part of this, and they came out in Virginia. And they came out in strong, very strong numbers for Democratic candidates. But there is also a critique being leveled by Black voters that Democrats would be really wise to listen to because the risk is not that they're going to turn tail and run to the Republican Party - although, there is a certain percentage that will do that - but the bigger risk is that they will stay home.

MARTIN: That's Leah Wright Rigueur. She's associate research professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The Loneliness Of The Black Republican."

Professor Wright Rigueur, thanks so much for talking with us.

WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.