What's the most overlooked, underappreciated story from the midterm elections? My nominee would be the surprising new racial and ethnic diversity of Republican congressional and gubernatorial winners -- even if we don't see as much diversity among the party's voters.
Republican contenders-of-color had a big history-making night, which helps undermine the notion that the GOP is becoming a whites-only party. It's hard to say how much help the new diversity will be in winning more nonwhite voters. But it already appears to be helping party leaders to become more comfortable with an increasingly multiracial, multicultural voting population. Party Chairman Michael Steele's help has not been enough.
For example, South Carolina's Tim Scott and Florida's Allen West became the first African-American Republicans to be sent to Congress from their states in more than a century. They also are the first black Republicans to join the House or Senate since Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired in 2003.
Cuban-American Marco Rubio of Florida was elected to become the Senate's only Hispanic Republican since Florida's Mel Martinez retired last year.
In the House, Idaho's Raul Labrador, Florida's David Rivera, Texas' Bill Flores and Francisco Canseco, and Washington state's Jaime Herrera will join newly reelected Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart for a record total of eight Republican Latinos in both chambers, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. That will bring the total Latino representation on Capitol Hill to what the association called "a near-record 27."
Among governors, Republican Susana Martinez won New Mexico's race to become the nation's first Latina governor-elect.
Republican Nikki Haley became South Carolina's first female governor and the nation's second Indian-American governor after Louisiana's Bobbie Jindal, also a Republican.
What have we learned? For one thing, since Rubio, West, Scott and Haley, among other conservative candidates-of-color, were endorsed by Sarah Palin and backed by the tea party movement, the tea partiers earn significant credit against the charge that they're running a whites-only movement.
For another, it is ironic that only six month ago I was writing about how there were more black Republicans running for Congress than there had been since Reconstruction, partly because they were encouraged by the long-shot victory of a Democrat, President Barack Obama. If he could do it, others figured, so can I.
A dozen black Republican congressional nominees made it to the general election. Two won. Both come from predominately white districts, which follows another post-1960s tradition. The parties have become so racially polarized since the civil rights/white backlash era that black Republicans in Congress have been elected by mostly white votes.
But there, it is important to note, the similarities between the House's two new black Republicans pretty much end. Scott, 45, a businessman and former state legislator, gained national notice by beating Paul Thurmond -- son of the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond -- to win the GOP primary in June, which in that conservative district is tantamount to victory. Despite his tea party endorsements, he campaigned in the style of a center-right moderate -- like a friendly businessman looking to make a sale.
West, by contrast, set out to shock and awe. The 49-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel delighted the far right by calling out Obama to "be a man" and declaring "institutional racism is dead." He had become a national conservative hero after he was disciplined for firing a weapon near the head of a detainee he was interrogating in Iraq for information about explosive devices. "If it's about the lives of my men and their safety," he famously told his defense attorney, "I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."
Quotes like that tell me that West, in particular, is going to be fun for Capitol Hill reporters to cover. He also represents the tiger that establishment Republican leaders have by the tail as they try to please tea party members of all colors. At a time when the party is wooing the votes of moderate swing voters, their right wing expects some heavy payback for their help in bringing conservative voters to the polls.
Things were a lot less complicated for Republican leaders when they could be simply the Party of No. Now they may have to learn, as Obama has, how to tell their various factions, "Not yet."