As Tennessee Becomes More Diverse, Republicans Try to Widen Their Tent

Feb 18, 2015

“Can I get an amen on this side?”

On a July night two summers ago, more than 1,400 Republicans turned out at Nashville’s new convention center for a speech by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

Many were still reeling from the GOP’s drubbing in the previous election – a loss largely attributed to the party’s ossifying base.

Scott represented a fresh start. Charismatic, young, African-American. His gospel-inflected message was meant to fire them up.  But only a few muted voices answered his "Amen" call.

“All right, we’ll just keep working you for a little while,” Scott concluded, bringing a chuckle from the crowd.

The Republican mood has rebounded since then. They grabbed control of Congress and in Tennessee easily held onto the governor’s office and expanded their numbers in the state legislature.

But the party’s appeal has largely been to white voters, even though Tennessee – along with the nation – is being reshaped by millennials and immigration. 

African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans – all were more likely to vote for a Democrat in 2014.

Tennessee's GOP executive director, Brent Leatherwood, says that needs to change.

“You know, the Republican Party cannot continue to be just seen as the party of old white men. … We believe that our principles of less government, lower taxes, more freedom – we think that speaks to people from all kinds of backgrounds.”

So the Tennessee Republican Party has begun to search for its own Tim Scotts. GOP activists have quietly built relationships with African-American ministers and held workshops for immigrants who own small businesses. They’ve formed a club for Latinos in Memphis. They’ve joined international celebrations in Nashville.

And, slowly, the Tennessee GOP seems to be growing a little less white.

From India to Tennessee

Sabi Kumar goes by the nickname “Doc.”

“It’s Sabi. S-A-B-I. It always draws a good laugh when I say, it’s just like kemosabe.”

Kumar grew up in the city of Amritsar in northwest India, where coincidentally he studied at the same medical school as the father of Nikki Haley, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina.

Kumar emigrated to Miami in 1970 to become a surgeon. Later he took a job in Springfield, a town of just over 16,000 between Nashville and the Kentucky border. There, Kumar met his wife, joined the local Methodist church and raised a daughter.

He didn’t get involved in politics until last year, when he decided to take on three other Republicans for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

“People were excited. People were positive. People were extremely supportive," he says. "You know, one of the lessons I learned through the process is, that people will surprise you.”

Kumar was elected easily, beating his nearest competitor in the GOP primary by 15 percentage points and running unopposed in the general election. His immigrant background rarely came up. Instead, Kumar says, voters seemed to view him as someone they were familiar with.

“If you were to calculate that I saw 50 patients a week … over 37 years," he estimates, "that is almost 90,000 patient interactions or encounters.

“I absolutely did not feel any sense at all that, because of my ethnic background, I was at a disadvantage at all. And I think, certainly, the results of the polling prove that.”

Slow move toward diversity

Efren Perez studies how different ethnic groups view politics. He believes diversity will come gradually to the Republican Party, including in Tennessee.

“I think it’s unrealistic for us to expect the Republican Party as a whole to basically do an about-face," he says. "But, little by little, I think what you’re going to see is nontraditional Republican candidates.”

The Vanderbilt professor believes diversity should be a priority for the Republican Party -- just not for the reasons many scholars often cite. He says the GOP risks losing white voters unless it responds to a changing nation.

“What’s the purpose of these candidates?" he says. "Who is that good for? What it actually does is it helps white Republican voters who maybe aren’t as hard-edged as some of their co-partisans. I think those are the types of people that actually respond to these nontraditional candidates.”

For the most part, nontraditional Republicans – like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Utah’s newly elected congresswoman, Mia Love – downplay their ethnicity, Perez notes. As a result, they don’t appeal much to minority voters.

But Perez believes many moderate Republicans across the nation – especially those who live in diverse suburban and urban districts – embrace nontraditional candidates.

These voters have played an important role in keeping the Republican Party balanced.

“And I think that’s who it helps, and I think this is why Republicans are still basically electorally competitive.”

By some measures, Tennessee is the whitest state in the South. Census data shows only one in four of its residents come from a minority group.

But the state does have fast-growing Muslim, Asian and Latino communities.

It may be from within those circles that the next Republican star in Tennessee emerges.