First, several Republican presidential candidates alienated women. Then came Latinos. Now, Muslim-Americans. Which group comes next? And how will such rhetoric – marginalizing some of the fast-growing segments of the U.S. electorate – come back to haunt Republicans on Election Day in 2016?
After retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told NBC News on Sunday that he doesn’t believe a Muslim should be elected to the White House, and Donald Trump battled back criticism for failing to correct a questioner who wrongly declared President Obama is a Muslim and “not even an American,” attention has turned to what seems to be a renewed outbreak of Islamophobia in the GOP ranks. But that’s just the latest group to come under attack.
Sure, there are Republican candidates dismissing such comments, but they are largely being drowned out by Trump and Carson, who are among the party’s top-tier White House contenders at the moment. With anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, and anti-women rhetoric dominating the political conversation, the GOP – which concluded in 2013, in its admirably honest autopsy report, that it needed to do more to win over women and minorities – is in danger of repeating the error and relying further still on its ever-shrinking base of older white voters.The rhetoric “concerns me,” said Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee member from South Carolina who co-authored the autopsy report. He noted that while it was a select few in the GOP field making disparaging remarks, “It takes away from the conversation from the positive work we’re doing in those communities and is truly not how Republicans feel as whole.”
Henry Barbour, an RNC member from Mississippi who also helped author the 2013 report, called Carson and Trump’s remarks in particular about Muslim-Americans “preposterous.” He added, “We need to stand for our principles, but the GOP should be synonymous with the name Growth and Opportunity Party and not trying to determine who we want to exclude. Addition and multiplication are how to grow a political party – not subtraction and division.”
Carson’s communication director, Doug Watts, seemed to be in damage-control mode on Tuesday, telling NBC News that the GOPer was not trying to alienate Muslims and that the campaign is reaching out to Muslim groups and Islamic scholars in hopes of meeting in the near future. But the campaign is not walking back its remarks. Carson told reporters in Ohio that his comments were taken out of context and that he had “no problem” with any person of faith as long as they place the U.S. Constitution above their religious beliefs.
Still, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on Carson to drop out of the race. “For a party that claims it wants to be a big tent, they’re closing those tent flaps on a regular basis,” on Muslims-Americans, Latino and women voters, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the influential U.S. Islamic group. But so far, the GOP’s 2016 primary campaign has been anything but a big tent. With the conservative base riled up by Trump’s regressive rhetoric, the GOP once again seems to be a party of older white men.
The strategy isn’t sustainable. After all, the Hispanic electorate is expected to double by 2030, according to Pew Research Center. While America’s Muslim population is much smaller by comparison, it’s concentrated in swing states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida. A Gallup survey from earlier this year showed the majority of Americans – 60% – would support a Muslim candidate for president while 38% said they wouldn’t. And women, obviously, make up more than half of the population and have voted in higher numbers than men as a whole.
To be sure, Democrats have been accused of riling up anti-Muslim sentiments when it suited them. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, for example, faced allegations that it circulated a photo of Obama in attire traditionally worn by Muslims during the protracted Democratic primary fight. And as Stuart Stevens – who served as a chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign – pointed out, the former governor faced attacks during his 2012 run about his religious beliefs as a Mormon.Then-Democratic Gov. of Montana Brian Schweitzer, for example, was criticized after saying Romney could have issues because his father was “born on a polygamy commune in Mexico.” And then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Romney of having “sullied” Mormonism and misrepresenting the religion after his now-infamous remark that 47% of people who support Obama are dependent on the government.
“It’s not an unfamiliar moment in American politics,” said Stevens, although he added that when it comes to the latest rhetoric from the GOP frontrunners, “I don’t think anything like this is helpful.” He added the biting remarks are “not going to be definitional unless the nominee has this opinion.” And Stevens, for one, doesn’t think Trump or Carson will be the GOP’s nominee.
But other candidates have also made comments that could be considered offensive. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush came under fire in August for using the controversial term “anchor baby,” referring to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States who automatically receive citizenship. Bush then got into more hot water after telling reporters the term was “more related” to Asians engaging in the practice of birth tourism.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas did themselves no favors among gay voters and supporters of gay rights during the recent Kim Davis fiasco. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio disparaged many women this week when he suggested during an Iowa TV news show that women “look forward to having more abortions” since Planned Parenthood created an “incentive for people to be pushed into abortions so that those tissues can be harvested and sold for a profit.”
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political campaign management at New York University, called the recent rhetoric a “mini-disaster for the party.”
“It’s a very, very bad sign for the Republican party and how they surmount that I’m not certain,” she said.