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GOP still needs to fix its minority voter deficit [Commentary]

The alleged "raid" on the Republican senatorial primary in Mississippi, wherein black Democratic voters were said to have crossed over to vote for longtime incumbent Thad Cochran, has outraged his tea-party challengers. It sounds like a version of the old Dixie lament that "those people" should stay with their own kind.

The real culprit is the Magnolia State itself, for holding an open primary law that allows voters to participate in a runoff regardless of party. And it's another reminder of the basic Republican problem of being branded as hostile or just unaccommodating to minority voters and their interests.

The Cochran strategists are being credited with having beaten the bushes in heavy African-American precincts to boost turnout. But the power of minority participation was already demonstrated in the 2012 presidential election, wherein Mitt Romney was buried by black, Hispanic and other minority votes.

Establishment Republicans of Mr. Cochran's ilk are rejoicing over what they see as another stake in the heart of the tea party, somewhat countering its shocking success in ousting House Minority Leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary. Yet the intramural GOP fight will go on in November's midterm congressional elections and the 2016 battle for the presidency.

In all this, the Grand Old Party takes considerable solace in the current distress of President Obama, whose popularity has fallen to 41 percent in latest polls, despite the fact that Republicans in Congress are rated even lower. But as they bask in Mr. Obama's slippage, they have a glaring dilemma of their own. Two years from the next presidential election, they have no obvious nominee in sight.

The political cupboard is so bare that Texas Gov. Rick "Oops" Perry appears to be suiting up for another bid, as does another also-ran, Rick Santorum. This is happening in a party that traditionally has had its next nominee waiting in the wings for "my turn."

In the past, patient party leaders have gone at least once around the presidential track or have bided their time, recognizing that loyalty can be rewarded. Losers Richard Nixon, George Bush Sr., Bob Dole and John McCain all eventually won the GOP presidential nomination, their boosters arguing it was owed to them.

Looking at the current potential roster for 2016, no likely heir apparent jumps out other than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who would be a first-time presidential aspirant, or perhaps Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 losing vice-presidential nominee. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has the look, in racetrack terminology, of an early pacesetter but is still generally regarded a libertarian outsider.

The current crop of Republican governors offers more ambition than public recognition, with the exception of New Jersey's Chris Christie, whose initial high profile has been tarnished by that bridge backup fiasco that smacks of both incompetence and stupidity. Neither quality has been known as a recommendation for national office.

In light of the internal split between the tea-party insurgents and old establishment party figures — like House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Messrs. Cochran and McCain — what's lacking, alas, is a political star of the magnetism of Ronald Reagan.

Casting about among the other potential stars, only former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be appear to have the stature right now to generate the needed national support for a presidential campaign. But Bloomberg is a one-time Democrat who ran as a Republican to get on the ballot in New York and then declared himself an independent. Generally regarded as a liberal in his conspicuous leadership of a national campaign against gun violence, he would be a fish out of water as the GOP presidential nominee.

Whichever White House aspirant manages to emerge from the current fog will need more of that same minority voter support that was Mr. Romney's undoing — and appears to have been Mr. Cochran's salvation in Mississippi — to reach the Oval Office in 2017.

And so, for all of the GOP's high expectations for taking control of Congress this fall and the presidency beyond, breaking the minority-vote barrier remains a critical challenge.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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