WASHINGTON – Record numbers of women and racial minorities were elected to the 113th Congress, which was sworn in Thursday. Among them were the first Buddhist to join the Senate, the first Hindu and the first openly bisexual woman in the House of Representatives.
House Democrats became the first caucus in the history of either chamber not to have a majority of white men. It was a watershed moment for the Democratic Party, which has adopted diversity as one of its chief selling points and has marketed itself as the party that looks more like a fast-changing United States.
“It was a decision,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an interview about boosting the number of Democratic women in Congress. “We made a decision a long time ago that we were going to try to expand the number. We made a decision for women to help women, and also for the Democrats as a party to help recruit women and help fund campaigns.”
The overwhelming majority of lawmakers sworn in Thursday were white men. But the new Congress, while still lagging behind the nation as whole in diversity, reflects national demographic changes that hold significant implications for American politics.
Democrats think those changes give them a distinct political advantage in a nation in which fewer whites are making up the electorate. They say that having a diverse caucus gives them intimate authority and a public face for most issues, while opening new avenues of fundraising to support their campaigns.
Republicans, too, see the value of diversity and have sought to highlight changes in the GOP. When Jim DeMint of South Carolina recently stepped down from the Senate, for instance, he was replaced by Tim Scott, giving Republicans a chance to claim the only African-American in the Senate. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Cuban-American, also became an instant star among Republicans when he was elected.
Overall, though, Republicans have struggled to diversify their ranks, and the party was criticized after the presidential election for mainly appealing to an older, whiter coalition. Whether the GOP will adjust its positions to lure more votes from an increasingly diverse electorate is a key question likely to play out in the new Congress.
The Democratic diversity was on display Thursday during the vote for House speaker. Pelosi beamed as dozens of women and minorities called out her name as their choice over Speaker John Boehner, who was narrowly elected by the Republican majority. Twice, her name was read aloud in Spanish.
The House has 81 women, 61 of them Democrats. The Senate includes 20 women — still just a fifth of the chamber but an achievement striking enough that ABC News gathered the group for a joint interview.
There will be now be 42 blacks in the House and one in the Senate — Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first black Republican in the Senate since 1979.
Two of the Senate’s three Hispanics will be Republicans (Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida). Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is a Democrat. But of the 29 Latinos in the House, 24 are Democrats.