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GOP's 2010 slate shows growing diversity

By John Avlon, CNN contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon says growing diversity of GOP nominees an overlooked element in 2010
  • He says there are 14 black nominees for Congress, three look positioned to win
  • Two Hispanic GOP candidates in Southwest running for governor
  • Avlon: U.S. must move beyond era where skin color a reliable indicator of political beliefs
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Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- One of the under-reported stories of this election cycle is the new diversity of GOP nominees -- from African-American congressional candidates to Hispanic and Indian-American gubernatorial candidates.

The party's 2010 slate marks a step toward fulfilling the promise of the Party of Lincoln -- which championed the end of slavery -- and undercuts reflexive attempts by some on the far-left to portray the Republican surge as fueled by racism.

For starters, there are 14 African-American GOP congressional nominees this year. By comparison, 2008 saw roughly half as many black GOP nominees -- and none won. Judging by the polls, at least three of this year's African-American candidates look likely to win: South Carolina's Tim Scott, Colorado's Ryan Frazier and Florida's Allen West.

That would total in one year the number of African-American Republicans elected to Congress since the civil rights era. Granted, it's still a far cry from the numbers on the Democratic side -- there are 48 African-American Democratic nominees this year -- but it's a significant step in the right direction.

It's hard to imagine today, but all 23 African-Americans who served in Congress before 1900 were Republicans -- they would not have dreamed of being anything but members of the Party of Lincoln, the party that advanced African-Americans after the Civil War while the states of the former Confederacy remained dominated by the Democratic Party. That loyalty, forged in war, continued for almost a century.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower won 39 percent of the African-American vote, and in 1966, the first African-American popularly elected to the senate was a Republican from Massachusetts, the legendary Ed Brooke.

But then came the Southern Strategy and the formerly solid, conservative Democratic south realigned Republican after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Southern conservatives became Republicans, though they remained consistent in their philosophic commitment to states rights and traditional values. African-Americans took the hint.

By 1980, only 12 percent of African-Americans voted for Reagan. John McCain was only able to win 4 percent of the black vote against Barack Obama.

The nomination and likely election of Tim Scott in the first district of South Carolina captures this year's election shift in historic terms: He defeated one time Dixiecrat and segregationist Strom Thurmond's son to win the primary to represent the district that fired on Fort Sumter.

But the biggest shifts may be in the governor races, where Nevada's Brian Sandoval and New Mexico's Susana Martinez are poised to win the GOP two Hispanic governors in the Southwest. These candidates have far broader appeal than, for example, Sharron Angle, who is running on the same ticket as the pro-choice, former judge, Sandoval.

And if Nikki Haley wins in South Carolina, she and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal will be the nation's first two Indian-American governors.

Taken together, these Hispanic and Indian-American candidates would give the GOP a more diverse group of governors than the Democrats in 2011. That startling reality should help shake-up stubborn stereotypes.

In addition, front-runner Cuban-American Marco Rubio in the Florida senate race rounds out a group of six competitive Hispanic GOP congressional candidates, including likely winner Francisco Canseco of Texas.

One of the byproducts of the rigged system of redistricting -- I recommend the new documentary Gerrymandering to learn more on the subject -- are safe congressional districts that are polarized along partisan as well as racial lines.

Therefore, a compromised incumbent Democrat like Harlem's Charles Rangel has a built-in advantage even against a strong challenger, like the Rev. Michel Faulkner, the former New York Jets player who is running against him.

"The growing diversity of the Republican party is not so much a response to Republican outreach efforts as it is to the bankruptcy of liberal ideals," says Faulkner. "Our growing diversity is really us just getting back to our fundamentals."

Of course, it's worth keeping all this in perspective: In the same post-civil rights period that Republicans have elected three African-Americans to Congress, Democrats have elected more than 90 -- not to mention the country's first African-American president.

But progress on overall diversity is still progress, and Michael Steele's leadership has proven effective in helping to recruit a group of candidates that can help close the pathetic diversity deficit. It is a reflection of the fact that our country is far more diverse than it was in the past, and the GOP is evolving to match.

A less racially polarized national political debate is in the interest of all-Americans. We need to move past the era when the color of a person's skin is seen as a reliable indicator of their political beliefs. That is a vision of a more perfect union, toward which we strive in every election.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.