The Party of Old White Guys Changes Its Look

A new RNC program tries to showcase Republican diversity

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New Hampshire state representative Marilinda Garcia speaks during the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Boston on Aug. 15, 2013

Nine months after Barack Obama’s edge with young people, minority groups and women carried him to re-election, the Republican National Committee is beginning a new campaign to showcase the diversity in the GOP ranks.

Launched last week, the RNC’s Rising Stars initiative highlights the next generation of the Republican Party, a group of activists, authors, elected officials and candidates that combats the GOP’s homogenous image. “The Republican Party has gotten a stereotype as being populated mostly with old white men,” New Hampshire state representative Marilinda Garcia, one of the RNC’s Rising Stars, tells TIME. “The point is to highlight people such as myself who are not old white men, along with other young people, and let us be the messengers.”

The initiative will tout about four new up-and-coming Republicans every three months. In addition to Garcia, the first batch of Rising Stars includes T.W. Shannon, Oklahoma’s first African-American speaker of the house and a protégé of former Representative J.C. Watts; conservative writer Scott Erickson; and Karin Agness, the founder of a group for conservative college women.

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Putting new faces on TV is just one element of the Republican rebranding project touched off by an election in which Obama dominated demographics like women, voters under 30, Hispanics and African Americans. “Obviously at the aftermath of the 2012 election, the party realized that we have a lot of work to do,” says RNC spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. In addition to new investments in digital technology and outreach to minority communities, the RNC currently has over 150 field workers talking to voters, Flores says.

But it may not be easy for the GOP to make inroads with these groups in time for 2016 — particularly as some Republicans sidetrack the rebranding campaign with inflammatory remarks, like Iowa Congressman Steve King’s comment that many immigrant children have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 lb. of marijuana across the desert.”

“We’ve been a little bit crippled in the past by some of the louder voices that have not put things very nicely and said things that are frankly offensive,” says Garcia, a Hispanic who was first elected to the New Hampshire state legislature at 23. At a town-hall-style meeting in Boston on Thursday, she joined the other Rising Stars to discuss ways to reach out to a more diverse slice of the American population.

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“The liberal media would have you believe that there’s nobody that looks like the people on this stage that have an R behind their name. And that’s just not the case,” said Oklahoma’s Shannon, who suggested that the party should stress its belief in limited government and personal responsibility, two values that he learned from his local African-American church.

Agness, the founder and president of the Network of Enlightened Women, argued that the GOP would benefit by tackling the problem of liberal bias in universities. Discouraged by the lack of conservative outlets for women at the University of Virginia, she founded her own book club that has since grown to 20 campus chapters across the country. The organization creates a place on campus for these students to discuss their take on political and gender issues. “Women are not just some unified voting bloc that’s going to vote liberal every time, because it is more complicated than that,” Agness said.

For the RNC, highlighting the party’s diversity to voters is a smart move. But the effort to remedy Republican struggles with traditionally Democratic voting blocs may not pay off in time for 2016, when the GOP may face, in Hillary Clinton, a powerful candidate who would be bidding to become the first female President. “You don’t change an image like that or a social composition like that in a year or two years,” says Alex Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “It will take time and real change for that to happen. I think we’re talking about a project that’s probably a project of a decade.”

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