Republicans Elevate Diverse Recruits in Bid to Win House Majority
TUCSON, Ariz. — When Juan Ciscomani first brought his family to his new congressional campaign office in the Catalina foothills, his father asked him: “Do you know where we are?”
This was the same upscale neighborhood where a teenage Juan and his father, who immigrated from Mexico and took a job driving city buses, used to come early in the mornings to wash expensive cars to help make ends meet. Years later, the younger Mr. Ciscomani is one of House Republicans’ top recruits in the country, running to flip a key congressional seat just blocks from where they once worked to scrape by.
“Two blocks away — it dawned on us,” Mr. Ciscomani recalled in an interview. “Then he said his favorite phrase: ‘Only in America.’”
If Republicans win back the House majority in the November elections, it will be because of candidates like Mr. Ciscomani. In the nation’s most competitive congressional districts, Republicans have aggressively recruited people of color with powerful personal stories to tell, betting that compelling candidates, equipped with disciplined messages that focus on kitchen table issues like inflation and public safety, will deliver them control of the House.
Republicans saw the potency of the strategy in 2020, when handicappers and pollsters predicted that Democrats would expand their majority. Instead, Democrats did not gain a single new seat while Republican candidates — women, minorities and veterans — won 15.
Party operatives attributed the success to their decision to follow Democrats’ winning formula in 2018, recruiting a diverse group of candidates who helped propel them to gaining control of the House.
Now, Republicans say it is a crucial component of their strategy to build a lasting majority.
“We made a significant effort to not just say we would do recruitment differently but to actually get stronger recruits, and forcefully engaging on behalf of stronger recruits, more diverse recruits, recruits that reflect their electorates and the country,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ super PAC.
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It is a striking strategy for a party whose ranks are overwhelmingly white and male, and include some lawmakers who have lionized the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and embraced nativist, anti-immigrant language. The House Democrats’ campaign arm has spotlighted the influence of the hard right among Republicans, and has criticized Republican leaders for failing to confront extremists within their own conference.
Republicans know that to meet predictions that they will win back the House this year, they must appeal not only to their core political base of right-wing and conservative voters, but also to college-educated people and independents in the suburbs who are likely to be alienated by such statements and stances. And party leaders are eager to continue to fix their diversity problem, with women composing only about 16 percent of the conference and people of color composing nine percent.
In Texas, three Latina women are running in the Rio Grande Valley, including Mayra Flores, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico at six years old, worked on the frontline of the pandemic as a respiratory therapist, and is married to a Border Patrol officer. Ms. Flores could come to Congress as early as this month if she wins the special election to replace former Representative Filemon Vela, a Democrat who retired before the end of his term.
Black Republicans with records of military service are running for several other key seats, in districts that Mr. Biden won by only a few points. There is John James in Michigan and Wesley Hunt in Texas, who both graduated from West Point and flew Apache helicopters in Iraq; and in Georgia, Jeremy Hunt, the son of two ministers who also graduated from West Point and who served as an active-duty Army intelligence officer in Ukraine.
In Indiana, Jennifer-Ruth Green, an Air Force veteran who deployed to Baghdad and served as a mission commander for counterintelligence activities, is looking to unseat Democrat Frank Mrvan in his northern district. Should all four prevail, they would triple the number of Black Republicans serving in the House.
Here in Arizona, Mr. Ciscomani, a senior adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey, is vying to win the Tucson-based district held by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year.
In a district evenly populated by Democratic, Republican, and independent voters, Mr. Ciscomani is running with a laserlike focus on inflation, border security, and an explicit appeal for unity.
“We have to be very disciplined in saying there are more things we agree on than disagree on,” he said. “And if we stay focused on that — I think that’s what the voters want to see right now. They’re tired of the infighting and bickering. They want government to go do their job. To go actually protect our border, to handle this inflation, stop the overspending, and get things under control.”
That type of message would put Mr. Ciscomani in the minority among his Republican colleagues should he be elected in November, and it stands in sharp contrast to the language used by other Republicans in the Arizona delegation.
Representative Paul Gosar, who represents much of rural western Arizona, has allied himself with the white nationalist Nick Fuentes and was censured last year for posting an animated video that depicted him killing a Democratic congresswoman. Representative Andy Biggs, whose district is in the eastern portion of the state, has described the influx of migrants at the southwestern border as an “invasion,” and, like Mr. Gosar, participated in the “Stop the Steal” campaign backing former President Donald J. Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.
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In the interview, Mr. Ciscomani did not criticize Mr. Gosar or Mr. Biggs, suggesting they were just reflecting the people they represent and steering the conversation back to his experience on issues like trade and immigration.
“Their races and their messaging is geared toward their constituency,” Mr. Ciscomani said. Referring to the district he is running in, he added, “We are very unique among Arizona. We’re very unique in the country. So the strategy that we implement here and what is needed to win in this district is very different than anywhere else in the state. In our district, it just goes back to the issues.”
It is a similar approach to the one Tanya Contreras Wheeless, a Republican who is running to unseat Democratic Representative Greg Stanton just north of Mr. Ciscomani’s district in the suburbs of Phoenix, took as she toured the Studio Academy of Beauty in Chandler on a recent Thursday.
Ms. Wheeless touts a powerful story of her own. Born to teen parents, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, she took a job at 14 mopping floors at a local bakery and put herself through college and law school. She later became an executive for the state’s N.B.A. team, the Phoenix Suns, and served as the Arizona-based deputy chief of staff to former Senator Martha McSally.
Sitting down with students and instructors after the tour, Ms. Wheeless listened carefully as they detailed how inflation had affected the cost of everything from the gloves and hair dye they used at work to essentials at home, like baby formula and gasoline.
“Sometimes it’s, ‘I need food or gas.’ — I can’t have both,” one student, Jenna, who declined to provide her last name, told Ms. Wheeless. “And of course, the kid always comes first. She’s always going to get everything. But myself, I’ve noticed I’ll come to school and I won’t be able to afford something to eat for that day.”
Ms. Wheeless said she could relate, recalling how determined she was to go to college.
“I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck,” Ms. Wheeless told the group. “I saw the struggle for my parents.”
Later, in an interview, Ms. Wheeless recalled how her parents had taken her on a special trip when she was 7 to pick out new school clothes, but the outfits — purchased on layaway — had never come.
When she hears from voters who are agonizing over whether to purchase food or gas, she said, “I’m taken back to that place where we were in our family.”
She said those issues will be the focus of her campaign against Mr. Stanton.
“If you look at the economy, if you look at safety, these are issues that all the polls show people trust Republicans to deal with,” Ms. Wheeless said. “And so that’s what we’re going to do.”