The outcomes in specific US House races rarely matter outside their own borders: the fact that 63 Republicans took over Democratic seats in 2010 is known exponentially more than any single one of the 63 contests. Indeed, the most consequential House-level results in the last several decades have arguably been the defeats that redounded to the benefit of three future presidents: imagine the ways George W. Bush and Bill Clinton might have been diminished had they won their House races, and spent the eighties in congressional firefights and intra-party battles to ascend to the Senate; think of Barack Obama beating Bobby Rush and trying to overcome the marginalizing bounds of holding an African American district.
I’ll venture a guess that Utah’s newly created 4th District is about to break the pattern of irrelevance, at least if a thirty-something African American woman, who happens to be a conservative Mormon Republican, wins a battle that is well within her reach (a dead heat against a Democratic congressman in a Republican leaning seat). Mia Love’s potential breakthrough in one of the whitest districts in America would be a message in a bottle from the future—the kind of promise that is attracting outsized attention and dollars from around the country.
It’s important to note what Love is not: unlike Barack Obama, she is not the beneficiary of a liberal party self-consciously aware of the chance to write history, and there was no racial base ready to rally around her, or to punish the party if she had been rejected in her primary. She is no caricature who bends so far to the right that it seems like a disingenuous pose: there is a distinct absence of fire and brimstone, and her embrace of Republican agenda items like the Ryan Plan is couched in process-minded tones, with no overheated claims that socialism is around the corner. Notably, her own mantra on the stump is that she asks about the sustainability and affordability of programs first—a conservative stance but a contrast with, say, Grover Norquist’s flamboyant description of shrinking government to a size that makes it fit to be drowned in a bathtub.
In other words, Love is a polished, modulated campaigner who spends a lot of time stressing the fruits of her short, but successful stint, as a local mayor. It’s a pragmatic, results oriented conservatism that doesn’t growl. The glory in her rise, if you root for a less race-centric politics, is that her style has almost anything to with her race, and not coincidentally, voters are engaging her in the same race neutral manner.
The winning proposition for Republicans, though, is that Mia Love could almost certainly not have happened if she were a Democrat —to the contrary, had her opponent Jim Matheson stayed put in his original district, and a black Democrat presented herself as an option in CD 4, there is every likelihood that her audacity would have been met with the ridicule and rolled eyes that marked the left’s initial response to Love (one liberal website chortled that the only blacks in Utah were members of the Jazz basketball team—a gibe that would have brought instant and nationwide denunciation if a conservative had made it).
Love exposes a weak side of the Democratic Party on race—its demonstrated propensity to relegate black candidates to obscurity or the label of “unelectability” unless they are competing in a predominately black district: it’s the indulgence of a party that touts its affinity for black political interests but routinely slams doors in the faces of blacks stretching outside their racial boundaries (and that in 2003, made a practice of shunting Barack Obama to back rooms when the young Senate candidate made prospecting trips to DC). If Love wins, she will be the third black Republican in two cycles to break through in a congressional district where her race is a distinct minority; in that same time frame, not one black Democrat has achieved the same feat, and the number of CBC Democrats who don’t hail from black districts is less than a handful out of 42.
Given that demographic trends have constrained the number of majority black seats, the size of the CBC will not grow unless more blacks find a way to win in non-black, and often non-liberal, environments. That’s an eventuality that does not trouble Democratic operatives, who have shown no qualms whatsoever over the absence of black contenders in white dominated districts, even in the Obama era; it also likely does not bother the CBC or the African American blogosphere, both of whom reserve their cheerleading for reliably liberal black Democrats who emphasize their advocacy for the black community.
It’s a limitation that may be of more than passing interest, though, to African American professionals who happen not to live either in the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, etc., or in black majority southern districts covered by the Voting Rights Act. On the off chance that serving their country in Congress might intrigue young black Americans living in, say, Denver or Topeka, or the white suburbs in the South, a Love victory might be a template for a dream that currently looks improbable. For the rest of us, Mia Love in Congress may be a harbinger of what an America cleansed of race-obsession actually looks like.
[full disclosure: I’ve never met Love, never talked to her staff, but wrote her campaign a $500 check a month ago—the freedom of being a columnist on a site I pay for, rather than a journalist on someone else’s dime]