Confederate monument furor could signal GOP's fate

New Orleans begins Confederate statue removal
New Orleans begins Confederate statue removal

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Story highlights

  • Douglas Heye: Corey Stewart's tweets show short-sightedness of some in GOP
  • Nikki Haley's treatment of the Confederate flag in 2015 offers a better example

Douglas Heye is a CNN political commentator and former deputy chief of staff to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)The announcement that City of New Orleans would remove four monuments to the Confederate era was sure to cause controversy and stoke racial tensions in the city. Removing Confederate monuments can be a delicate issue in the South. But the monument in question isn't your garden variety statue honoring a general who was brave in battle.

Doug Heye
The Liberty Place Monument commemorates an 1874 uprising by the Crescent City White League, described as a "paramilitary organization of the Democratic Party, made up largely of Confederate veterans." In 1932, an inscription was added, noting "The national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state."
As the first monument was slated for removal, Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia took to Twitter, declaring "Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don't matter." As his Tweet-storm continued, he used the hashtag #HistoricalVandalism and compared the removal of the monuments to actions taken by ISIS.
Why in the world would a gubernatorial candidate in Virginia involve himself in a controversy over an obelisk several hundred miles away, one that New Orleans City Council in 1993 declared a public nuisance?
The answer, of course, is politics -- and the misguided hope that by highlighting this issue, Stewart can appeal to older white Republicans voters in the state who remember previous fights over the erection of an Arthur Ashe statue on Richmond's Monument Avenue, long home to statues honoring Confederate icons such as Jefferson Davis, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee. And possibly raise funds from the alt-right.
The explicit white supremacist message attached to the New Orleans monument Stewart is defending makes the oft-used claim by defenders of the Confederacy of "heritage, not hate" tough to swallow here, and whatever role it might play in a Virginia Gubernatorial primary, is yet another example of why Virginia's Republicans continually fail to attract minority voters.
That Stewart's outburst comes just days after a Republican state senator in Florida resigned after using the "N-word" in front of colleagues only compounds and highlights the national scope of the problem.
Of course, for many Republicans, there is no problem. Trump's victory and GOP control of government has given little reason for introspection on the challenges the party still faces. For them, Trump's victory shows it is Democrats, not Republicans, who face demographic challenges. For those Republicans essentially uninterested in appealing to minority voters, or who are already convinced such an effort will fail, nothing need change.
Politically, that may work in the short term, but long-term, that approach spells doom. The health of a political party is based on growth and appealing to new and different voters. Having maximized support from white working-class voters last year, the GOP must make serious, sustained efforts to appeal to minority voters who for too long have only heard a Republican message that -- whether on immigration, monuments or coarse and tasteless jokes about the Obamas -- consisted of "We don't like you," which ultimately eclipses efforts on issues like school choice, job and wage growth or criminal justice reform.
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By contrast with Stewart, in removing the Confederate flag from the State Capitol in 2015, and doing so by bringing together people of different backgrounds and ideologies, former South Carolina Governor -- now UN Ambassador -- Nikki Haley demonstrated a path forward for how Republicans can get things right on thorny, historical issues of race. Her example shows that doing the right thing has political benefits. But Republicans can only move forward if they choose to do so. The challenge is how to keep those who are stuck in the past from holding back those who want to look toward the future.