Fred Karger was the first Republican to declare his candidacy in the 2012 presidential election; outside of the self-described "king of the birthers" and the creatively whiskered Rent Is Too Damn High Party founder, he's still the only official Republican candidate in the race. Karger is fiscally conservative, pro-small government -- and openly gay. And he has no chance in hell of winning the primary.
Granted, sexual orientation aside, Karger would be facing pretty slim odds. He's never held public office, and he doesn't have nearly the name recognition of a Newt Gingrich or a Donald Trump or a Sarah Palin. A gay identity in a party that has taken strong stances against gay marriage, gay adoption, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would appear to be the nail in the coffin.
Yet rather than brush his sexuality under the rug and focus on his conservative bona fides, Karger, a gay-rights activist, is building his campaign around his sexual identity. In doing so, he's setting himself apart from the GOP's rejection of identity politics, a decades-old position that is gaining more and more traction.
If Karger wanted to make some headway among the Republican electorate, he'd be wise to take a look at the victors in November's elections who held a minority status in the GOP. On the heels of the tectonic political shift of 2008, when race and gender were front and center in the national conversation, the midterm election featured a good number of high-profile Republican candidates who, demographically, didn't fit the old script. Palin-endorsed Nikki Haley became the first female and nonwhite governor of South Carolina. Tea Party candidate Allen West easily won a South Florida House seat in a swing district to become one of the few black Republicans in Congress. Current New Mexico governor Susana Martinez, who is of Mexican descent, won the governorship in a state terrified of illegal immigration. Not many of Palin's "mama grizzlies" actually won, but they sure did make the media rounds. Our collective image of who can run for office -- particularly on the right -- has changed dramatically in just a few short years.
These candidates all trumpeted their outsider status as an asset, in an election year rife with anti-establishment fervor -- Haley, for instance, proclaimed that she had no interest in being part of the "fraternity party." Yet they also were invested in something Karger is not: keeping their identity out of their politics.
From Condi Rice to Colin Powell, Republicans have long been on a mission to unstick the political from the personal, to disconnect individual success stories from systemic problems of sexism, racism, and poverty. That trend is now stronger than ever. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, whose parents immigrated from Cuba, campaigned on being the embodiment of the American dream, while taking an enforcement-only stance against illegal immigration. I met then-candidate Allen West last fall while working on a national radio series for the elections, and he told our team that his race was not at all part of who he was as a candidate. "Institutional racism in the United States of America is gone," he said. He went on to win by a landslide in the 22nd District of Florida -- a district that is 87 percent white.
That's not to say that identity is never part of the message. Palin, for one, has hesitantly claimed feminism, (rightly) accused the media of sexism, and endorsed other female candidates who portray themselves as tough cookies and supermoms. But this rhetoric is a calculated attempt to pay lip service to sexism and generically celebrate women and motherhood, without actually enacting policies that would improve the lives of women and families. Palin and other conservative women, from Michele Bachmann to Cathy McMorris Rodgers, have disdained traditional women's rights interests, with assaults on reproductive rights, cuts to family programs and education, and opposition to affordable health care.
Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez, author of Los Republicanos, says that the midterm elections were about philosophy rather than gender and race. "They weren't winning in minority-only districts," she says of 2010's minority Republican candidates. "They were running and winning in mainstream America."
"Mainstream" is usually a euphemism for "white men," and that is precisely who these new ultraconservative politicos have catered to. The most ardent supporters of people like Haley and Palin are, in fact, white men; in spite of their working-mom schtick, most of these female candidates didn't attract more women voters than Republicans normally do. In 2010, Haley garnered 48 percent of female voters -- about the same as John McCain in 2008. Sharron Angle, who unsuccessfully ran for a Nevada Senate seat, got 11 percent fewer female votes than Harry Reid. Similarly, candidates of color didn't lure other Blacks or Hispanics to vote Republican in 2010. Instead, there were simply fewer minority voters, period -- a 40 percent drop from 2008, a year in which they voted in record numbers. The people who showed up in droves at the ballot box? Senior citizens, the wealthy, and white people. These candidates may be rejuvenating a section of the conservative base who, for once, sees a candidate who looks like them. But they aren't pulling minority or female on-the-fence voters further to the right.
Republicans have gotten the memo that they need to diversify if they're going to have any future viability. They're seeing the same things liberals are: that our president is black; that women have more power in business and politics and are more educated than ever before; that by the year 2050, there will be no ethnic or racial majority. And yet their recruitment of minority candidates in 2010 and videos about mama grizzlies have mostly served to reassure the voters who have supported the party all along -- voters who are increasingly anxious that their centuries-old power is slipping away.
"For super-socially conservative voters, voting for the person who is different -- whether it be a person of color or a gay person or a woman -- is a way to assuage any sense of prejudice," says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don't Cry, a book about women in the 2008 election. "There's a panic among those who are losing their power. If they can feel comfortable with a very conservative minority candidate, it reinforces the idea that our society is gender- and colorblind."
In other words, "elephant in the room" candidates will do fine in 2012, as long as they promise their base that they'll embrace conservative principles and uphold the social and economic status quo.
But Fred Karger isn't playing by the rules. He's asking Republicans to reset the table rather than requesting to pull up a chair. By advocating for gay rights, he's threatening to hand power from the party's base to a marginalized group, and to the GOP, that's just not acceptable. The doomed candidacy of Fred Karger and the successful ones of Haley and West and Martinez illustrate just how far the right is willing to go in order to diversify. Which is to say, not very far at all.