Less than five months before the election, congressional Republicans are struggling to confront a host of thorny racial issues that have been unexpectedly thrust into the 2020 campaign spotlight.

They’re still scrambling to craft a response to nationwide protests against police brutality following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, divided over whether to rename Army bases named after Confederate leaders and resistant to banning all Confederate statues from the Capitol.

The resistance to remove the Confederate statues — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) argue states should decide which figures represent them in the hallowed building — is even creating friction in the party.

Rep. Will Hurd, the only black House Republican, said it’s a no-brainer to remove the nearly dozen statues of Confederate generals and soldiers who fought against the Union.

“The bottom line for me is if someone didn’t want to be part of this great country, then why would we want to have their statue in the Capitol?” Hurd, who is retiring this year, told The Hill.

At the same time, he added, “I don’t believe in whitewashing history. I think we should be doing everything we can to educate folks on … the Confederacy and slavery and how bad it was and what was going on in the original sin of this country.”

The Grand Old Party’s struggles confronting America’s racist past aren’t new, but its handling of the current racial issues threatens to portray Republicans as tone-deaf and out of touch with the electorate as public opinion shifts dramatically over how police treat African Americans.

That shift is underscored by the number of U.S. corporations and entities like the NFL now showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. NASCAR even banned people from flying the Confederate flag at its events.

Recent polling also reflects the growing momentum, which threatens the GOP’s narrow 53-47 majority in the Senate.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released last week found that nearly 70 percent of Americans believe Floyd’s killing represented a systemic problem in policing. And nearly 75 percent said they were supportive of the protests that have sprung up in cities across the nation in response to Floyd’s death after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.  

The GOP’s scattered response to the racial crisis has been complicated by the actions and words of the man who will be atop the ticket in November. Indeed, President Trump, now facing a steep climb to winning a second term, has appeared in recent weeks more interested in fanning the flames of a 2020 culture war than tamping them down.

While moderate Republicans like Hurd, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have marched in the streets alongside Black Lives Matter protesters, Trump has aligned himself with police forces, declared himself the “law and order” president, pushed peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Square to stage a photo-op, and threatened to send military troops into U.S. cities to quell civil unrest sparked by Floyd’s killing.

Those divergent approaches and priorities are setting the stage for a high-profile clash between Trump and Congress.

The GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee, by a voice vote this past week, included a provision in its annual defense policy bill that would require the Pentagon to rename military bases and other installations that bear the names of Confederate leaders, including North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and Georgia’s Fort Benning.

Trump has said he would “not even consider” renaming military bases and vowed to veto the critical defense bill if it includes such a provision. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a Trump ally who’s viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, is now trying to strip out that legislative language, which he derided as an “effort at historical revisionism.”

Trump also fanned the flames of racial tensions by scheduling his first campaign rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in Tulsa, Okla., on Juneteenth — the June 19 holiday marking the end of slavery. Tulsa was the site of a massacre of black Americans in 1921, but Trump said the date and location of the upcoming rally was coincidental and called it a “celebration.”

He later pushed back the rally date by one day, citing criticism of the initial timing.

“This time is more than a notion. I’m telling folks, ‘Take the partisan blinders off. Put the American blinders on,’ and understand this is about our country and who we are. This is about our freedom and our future,” Michael Steele, a Trump critic who was the first African American to serve as Republican National Committee, said on his podcast. “And the only thing between that freedom and that future is a man called Donald Trump.”

The GOP’s reluctance to aggressively confront some of these racial issues is partly rooted in the fact that they don’t want to risk alienating any conservative voters ahead of November. Defenders of the Confederate flag, statues and other emblems argue their importance as both historical markers and symbols of a proud southern heritage.

The GOP also is significantly less diverse than the Democratic Party, giving Republicans fewer voices who can give voice to personal experiences with racism and encounters with the police. In the House, the 55-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) took the lead in writing a sweeping reform package to address racial injustice in police departments. The House will vote on the Justice in Policing Act on June 25.

Senior CBC members have also rolled out a bill that would remove the remaining 11 Confederate statues from the Capitol, including one of Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi senator who served as president of the Confederate States.

There are only two black Republicans in Congress: Hurd and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), who is authoring the GOP’s legislative response to the national outcry over police killings of black Americans. There’s also not a single minority in the top rungs of the House or Senate GOP leadership teams.

The Democratic Party is a “huge umbrella of people; it’s a party of inclusion. And as you include these people under your umbrella, you have a responsibility to address their issues. And because the Democratic party has so many black people, you have to address race,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a CBC member who represented Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American whose fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch leader in 2012 sparked nationwide protests.

The GOP “is basically a white, male party,” Wilson said, “and so their thinking and deliberation has to do with who they are.”

Scott’s proposal, which he plans to unveil this week, would provide more funding for police body cameras, require police to report use-of-force incidents to the FBI, and — like the Democrats’ bill — make lynching a federal hate crime. Meanwhile, his GOP colleague, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), has been holding up quick passage of the anti-lynching bill, arguing its definition of the crime is too broad.

Scott is keeping White House officials and top House Republicans like McCarthy and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) in the loop on his proposal, but Democrats say the GOP package is inadequate to meet the needs of this racially fraught moment. Some on the left have attacked the GOP’s sole black senator for being used by his party as a “token.” The easy-going Scott gently pushed back, saying it simply doesn’t make sense for anyone else to take the lead for Republicans.

“I’m the only person in my conference who’s been racially profiled driving while black. I’m the only one in my conference stopped seven times in one year as an elected official, perhaps the only one in my conference wearing this Senate pin that was stopped from coming into the building,” Scott said on NBC’s “Today.”

“So if there’s someone in the conference who understands discrimination and profiling, it’s me,” he added.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

Tags 2020 elections Confederate statues demonstrations Donald Trump Fred Upton Frederica Wilson Jim Jordan Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Protests Race racial issues Rand Paul Tim Scott Will Hurd
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