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A record number of Black candidates for higher offices aim to reshape U.S. politics

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/13/2022 Tim Craig
Democratic Rep. Val Demings clinched her party’s nomination to take on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in November, the AP projected. © Thomas Simonetti/For The Washington Post Democratic Rep. Val Demings clinched her party’s nomination to take on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in November, the AP projected.

MIAMI — A record number of Black men and women are running for U.S. Senate and governor this fall, with the potential to increase diversity in the nation’s top elected offices, which are still overwhelmingly held by White men.

Since Reconstruction, voters have elected just revseven Black senators and two Black governors. This year, 16 Black candidates — 13 Democrats and three Republicans — are major party nominees, from Florida and across the Deep South to traditional Midwestern battlegrounds like Wisconsin. While many of them face tough odds, some have posted strong poll numbers and fundraising totals, waging credible campaigns that challenge long-held attitudes about whether Black candidates can be competitive in statewide races.

The unprecedented number Black contenders for higher office comes at a time where racial and cultural fissures run deep in America. And as the fall campaign heats up, some of the candidates are bracing for racially-tinged attacks on their policies and character, highlighting their concern that African Americans still must run near-perfect campaigns to be successful.

Most of them have not made explicit appeals based on race in their campaigns, but many of those running as Democrats have embraced issues popular with minority voters and with the liberal base more generally, including voting rights and student loan relief, as well as access to abortion, which has emerged as a key issue in this year’s midterm elections.

Here in Florida, for instance, Rep. Val Demings, the Democratic nominee for Senate against Sen. Marco Rubio (R), has homed in on abortion and at a recent campaign stop drew a subtle comparison between abortion restrictions and slavery.

“I don’t think anyone wants to go back to being treated like property, or being treated like a second-class citizen,” she told voters as she campaigned in a stuffy South Florida recreation hall recently. “We know what that feels like, and we are not going back.”

Some of this year’s marquee Black candidates for statewide office are well established in their states. The list includes Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), both of whom are running for reelection, and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is making her second bid for governor in Georgia after running a strong campaign in 2018. But most are making history as the first to win major party nominations for Senate or governor in their respective states.

Currently, three Black Americans are members of the Senate: Scott, Warnock and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Vice President Harris, who is of Black and South Asian descent, serves as president of the Senate. Black Americans hold 56 seats in the House, plus two non-voting delegate seats for D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are no Black governors at present.

Much as former president Barack Obama did during his historic campaign in 2008, the candidates are using their personal stories and life experiences to connect with a cross-section of voters. Consider the pitch Mandela Barnes, the Democratic Senate nominee in Wisconsin, is making to voters as he campaigns to become the state’s first Black senator. He recounts his upbringing in inner-city Milwaukee and compares the challenges his working-class parents faced to the economic strains American families continue to face.

“The members of the Senate, they don’t reflect America,” Barnes, who is running against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, told supporters at a recent campaign event in suburban Milwaukee. “Most Senators don’t live in the American experience, they haven’t dealt with the challenges a majority of Americans deal with.”

Q&A with Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s Democratic nominee for Senate

Former Massachusetts governor Deval L. Patrick, who in 2006 became only the second African American to be elected governor, said a new generation of Black leaders have decided to “stop waiting for permission” from party leaders, the media, or pundits before they try to make their mark on state and national politics.

Black candidates remain “a long way from the promised land,” Patrick stressed, but he increasingly believes race isn’t nearly as much of “a barrier” as it has been in the past.

“I think what we are seeing is a whole bunch of candidates who are saying, ‘If that’s an issue, that is somebody’s else’s issue because there is more to me than that, and I am going to try to get people to see all of me,' ” said Patrick, adding that he’s had conversations with many of the Black candidates who are running for statewide office this year.

Some candidates, like Barnes and Wes Moore, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Maryland, ran good primary campaigns and won over voters. Others, like Demings and Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina, locked down early support from Democratic Party leaders and had no serious opposition. Herschel Walker, a University of Georgia running back who was awarded the 1982 Heisman Trophy, won the Republican nomination for Senate in Georgia with the backing of former president Donald Trump.

Many of the Black statewide candidates face considerable challenges — most of the Democratic candidates are running in red or Republican-leaning states; one of the three Black Republican candidates is running against Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D) in heavily Democratic New York.

Stefanie Brown James, executive director of the Collective PAC, said the number of Black candidates this year represents a transformational moment for American politics.

“It really shows that people understand that Black candidates can represent their issues no matter where they reside,” said Brown James, whose group works to elected liberal Black candidates.

Charles E. Jones, a retired professor and researcher of African American politics, race and public policy at University of Cincinnati, is not so sure. In 2006, while he was a professor at Georgia State University, Jones co-authored a study with Judson L. Jeffries, a professor at Ohio State University, that found “Whites are reluctant to vote for Black candidates, especially Black high profile state candidates.”

Jones believes that "race is still very salient in society” a continues to be a barrier for Black candidates. “The numbers do speak for themselves. You still have a rarity of Black members in the U.S. Senate and the governor’s house.”

The number of Black statewide hopefuls who remain competitive through Election Day will determine if “this is really a significant development for African Americans seeking higher office," Jones said. “Clearly, if you have most of them have the same viability of a Stacey Abrams, then we really could say we have a break through on that glass ceiling.”

The large class of Black statewide candidates comes four years after Abrams and Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, surprised political observers by running such competitive campaigns. Abrams, the first Black woman in the country to win a major party nomination for governor, lost to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) by 54,000 votes. Gillum, who was vying to become Florida’s first Black governor, lost to Republican Ron DeSantis by 32,000 votes.

In this year’s campaigns, Brown James noted Black candidates have been raking in campaign cash due to a surge of support from major high-dollar donors, including a return of in-person fundraisers at wealthy liberal enclaves such as Martha’s Vineyard, and low-dollar contributions from party activists.

While White women over 50 remain the biggest driver of small dollar donations to Democratic campaigns, Black candidates this year are also tapping into the growing willingness of the Black professional class to make political donations, said Akilah Ensley, a Florida-based fundraiser who specializes in helping Black candidates.

According to campaign finance reports, two of the three top Democratic Senate fundraisers this cycle are Black. Warnock, who is seeking a full term after his victory in 2021 in a special election runoff handed Democrats control of the Senate, has so far raised $60 million. Demings, meanwhile, has raised $47 million — about $20 million more than Rubio, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The top fundraiser among Senate Republicans is also Black — South Carolina’s Scott, who has taken in $33 million so far.

GOP seeks midterm reset as inflation, abortion temper ambitions

Patrick, who served as governor of Massachusetts from 2007 to 2015 and now is co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, cautions that many Black candidates remain hamstrung by “polls and punditry.” He said both Charles Booker, who is running against Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Deidre DeJear, the Democratic nominee for governor in Iowa, are impressive candidates who are not getting as much as attention and support as he thinks they deserve.

In his first race for governor, Patrick recalls how he initially struggled to convince elected leaders and the media that he could win. He even had to work to convince Obama, then a newly-elected senator from Illinois, that he could win.

But both Patrick and Brown James, who was African American vote director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said donors are finally acknowledging that a new generation of Black leadership has emerged within both parties. In the post-Obama era, both Black churches and civic organizations are producing bolder Black political leaders who are more willing to enter tough, high-profile races. That is creating political opportunities not only for Democrats but also growing numbers of Republicans.

Besides Scott, who is being talked about as a possible contender on a future presidential ticket, many Republicans consider Kentucky’s Black Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, to be a rising star in the party.

Scott, a former House member who was appointed to his Senate seat in 2013 and won a full term in 2016, is heavily favored to win reelection. His opponent, South Carolina State Rep. Krystle Matthews, who won the Democratic Senate primary, is facing calls from some in her own party to drop out after conservative activists released secretly recorded audio in which she allegedly disparages White people. Matthews said her comments had been mischaracterized and is refusing to quit the race.

Cosby H. Johnson, a 36-year-old Black man who last year was elected mayor of Brunswick, Ga., said the nation’s contentious political culture is nudging more African Americans into statewide elections.

“Our country has gotten so crazy and divisive that is has pushed very normal people who would otherwise say, ‘I am going to leave that to the [politicians]’…to now say: ‘Hey I am going to give this political thing a try,' ” said Johnson, who previously worked for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

In Maryland, Moore, a 43-year-old former nonprofit executive, is thought to be positioned to become the first Black governor of Maryland.

Moore, who has never held elected office, is facing Republican Daniel L. Cox, a state delegate who has aligned himself with Trump. Over the summer, Moore outraised Cox by nearly 1o to 1 — $1.8 million to $195,000.

But eight years ago, Maryland Republican Larry Hogan (R) shocked political observers by defeating Anthony G. Brown, who is Black and at the time was lieutenant governor, in that traditionally Democratic leaning state. Maryland, where African Americans make up 31 percent of the population, has never elected a Black governor or U.S. Senator. In 2018, Hogan defeated another Black candidate, Ben Jealous, a former national president of the NAACP. Brown is on the general election ballot this year as the Democratic nominee for attorney general.

Justin Schall, a Democratic strategist who managed Brown’s 2014 campaign, said Black candidates still encounter “bias” from White voters, especially in gubernatorial campaigns. He believes that is one reason Gillum and Abrams narrowly lost in 2018, in what otherwise was a good year for Democratic candidates nationally.

“I think for some people, and I am not even sure it’s a conscious thing … But the idea of them being the one person in charge, and the guy and or gal making the final decisions, still seems problematic,” said Schall, who worked on Warnock’s successful campaign for the 2020 special election for Senate in Georgia.

Schall believes the dynamics within American politics have evolved, with younger voters — many of whom grew with Obama as president — more receptive to voting for Black candidates. The country’s political system has also become so polarized that partisanship — not race — is now what largely drives voter behavior, Schall and other political strategists said.

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Black Democratic candidates, however, are bracing for an onslaught of negative ads with racial undertones, especially on matters involving crime and policing.

In Florida, Rubio is accusing Demings of wanting to “defund the police,” even though Demings is the former chief of Orlando’s police department. The Deming’s campaign has now printed up one-word campaign signs that read: “Chief.”

In Wisconsin, a state that was rocked by racial unrest after police shot a Black man in Kenosha in 2020, some Democrats also worry about GOP attacks against Barnes.

The Johnson campaign has already aired an ad that attempts to link Barnes to the policies of Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), three women of color often characterize as “radical” by conservative politicians and activists. The ad includes a dark, unflattering photograph of Barnes and accuses him of being “dangerously liberal on crime.”

Charles Franklin, a law school professor and the director of the Marquette Law School poll, said Barnes’s challenge will be whether he can make inroads in more rural parts of the state, as Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a White Democrat, did in 2018. He said Barnes’ obstacles there will be have more to do with ideology than race.

“In the northern part of the state, which has become more Republican, any Democrat may now have trouble making inroads there,” Franklin said.

On the campaign trail, Barnes talks about growing up in a household where his mother was a teacher and his father was a “third shift autoworker,” how he got the opportunity to go to college and leave one of Milwaukee’s toughest neighborhoods.

“If I can grow up and be your lieutenant governor, I think every child can at least have that same opportunity,” Barnes said during a recent speech, in which he described Johnson as being linked to big money interests in Washington.

Joe Pinion, the Republican nominee for Senate in New York, notes he was raised in Yonkers by a single mother who was a nurse and former nonprofit executive. Pinion, who launched his campaign on Martin Luther King Day, said his upbringing is one reason he has embraced such policies as fighting child poverty and building more neighborhood health clinics.

“These are issues that are very much are aligned with my personal upbringing,” said Pinion, adding that he’s the first Black Senate nominee from either major party in New York history. “My desire to see conservative principles brought to fruition is rooted in my experiences as a Black man in America,” he said.

In Florida, Demings travels around the state in a bright blue bus, with a towering photograph of herself emblazoned on its side. When she enters some campaign events, attendees hear the Katy Perry lyrics: “You’re gonna hear me roar.”

Demings, 65, who was raised in Jacksonville, recounts how she was told as a young child that she was the “wrong color” to “amount to anything.” She said proved her skeptics wrong by becoming the first member of her family to go to college, and the first woman to lead Orlando’s police department. She told an audience in South Florida recently that she believes her message of expanding health care and economic opportunities is resonating with voters and she feels upbeat about her chances to win the Senate race.

“Is it easy? Hell no, it isn’t easy,” Demings said. “But we didn’t build a great nation on easy. We built a great nation on hard work.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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