An unprecedented wave of Black candidates are running in statewide Democratic primaries throughout the country, providing a political test for Democrats’ party-wide commitment to racial equality heading into the 2022 midterms.
Black candidates have emerged as major contenders for the Democratic nomination in the party’s three best opportunities to pick up Senate seats in 2022, and in four of the party’s best chances to flip Republican-held gubernatorial mansions. As the party heads into a midterm election where history suggests they will struggle, Black candidates could end up leading the party’s ticket in both diversifying Sun Belt states and Midwestern battlegrounds.
A paltry number of Black candidates have won statewide elections. Just two Black men, and no Black women, have ever won gubernatorial elections in the United States ― Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Doug Wilder in Virginia. Only seven Black people have won election to the U.S. Senate since the end of Reconstruction more than 150 years ago.
But the Democratic Party’s full-scale rhetorical embrace of racial justice following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last year, along with recent victories for candidates like Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.) and Rep. Lauren Underwood (Ill.), has spurred Black candidates to step forward.
“The reckoning we’ve had over systemic racism and 400 years of American history has prompted a lot of people who might not otherwise have thought to run for statewide office to do so,” said John King, who was education secretary for the last two years of the Obama administration and is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland. “This is a long overdue correction to the historic underrepresentation of Black officials at the state level.”
The trend is strong enough that some races are now seeing multiple Black candidates, leading to fears that candidates could split the vote. In other cases, Black candidates are testing both establishment and progressive groups’ commitments to racial justice, challenging white candidates with better track records on traditional measures of electability.
And those candidates are introducing themselves to a Democratic Party apparatus that’s far less skeptical about the electoral viability of Black candidates than even a few years ago.
“We’re in a moment where people fundamentally believe Black candidates can win statewide races,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC. “We’re in an era of uncertainty, and when there’s uncertainty, people are open to different options.”
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, said the idea that a Black candidate couldn’t win statewide there has very little traction among the party faithful.
“The only folks saying that are the ones going off the record because they support another candidate,” Kenyatta said.
The strength of this year’s group of Black candidates has already played a role in prompting the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to adopt a more deliberative approach to endorsements, according to two Democratic sources who have discussed the matter with committee officials.
While the committee is not ruling out endorsing candidates in Democratic primaries, it’s likely to give races this cycle more time to develop than it has in the past. Critics have long accused the committee of endorsing front-running candidates too early, arguing the committee is effectively shutting down races before they begin.
“There’s going to be a very different take from the DSCC and others about going in and putting their finger on the scale this cycle,” Shropshire said. “That impacts people’s ability to raise money.”
The party committee’s decision to endorse two white candidates in Texas and Kentucky last cycle, for instance, may have tipped the scales against Black candidates in both states. (One of those candidates, Kentucky’s Charles Booker, narrowly lost to Amy McGrath. He’s expected to run for Senate again in 2022 against incumbent Republican Sen. Rand Paul.)
“At this stage we are carefully assessing the candidate fields, keeping open lines of communication with candidates and working to build the infrastructure we’ll need to win the general election,” DSCC spokesperson David Bergstein told HuffPost.
This cycle, Democrats could nominate Black candidates for GOP-held seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina ― the three states broadly seen as their best chances to gain ground in a Senate that is now evenly split.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is expected to run in Wisconsin, while Kenyatta and state Sen. Sharif Street have both launched campaigns in Pennsylvania. In North Carolina, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and former state Sen. Erica Smith are each campaigning.
The latter two races show how the emergence of additional Black candidates is creating political quandaries for some Democratic groups. In Pennsylvania, two progressive groups, the Working Families Party and Democracy for America, have endorsed Kenyatta, to the annoyance of supporters of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
Both Kenyatta and Fetterman are broadly considered progressives, and could find themselves competing for liberal votes in a primary that could see multiple well-funded candidates. Kenyatta, who is just 30 years old, pitches himself as having authentic working-class experience that Fetterman lacks.
“I learned very early on the economy wasn’t set up for families like mine. Being a working person is not about how you dress, it’s about what you’ve been through,” Kenyatta said ― a not-so-subtle shot at Fetterman, who is known for forgoing ties and stands out for his many tattoos and his 6-foot-8-inch frame.
Kenyatta and his allies have already begun aggressively attacking Fetterman for an incident where he detained a Black jogger while holding a shotgun in 2013. Fetterman has repeatedly denied that race played any role in the incident.
Fetterman’s allies argue that his national fundraising base and his history of winning statewide make him progressives’ best chance in years to win a swing-state Senate seat. In the first quarter of 2021, he was able to raise $4 million. Kenyatta brought in less than $400,000, according to Federal Election Commission records.
“At the end of the day, the progressive movement needs victories,” said Sean McElwee, a progressive strategist who supports Fetterman. “For the first time in recent Senate primary history, a progressive is entering the race with establishment levels of name ID and fundraising capabilities. I don’t think progressives should turn that away.”
In North Carolina, where two Black women appear set to share the ballot, both EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, and Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, have endorsed Beasley over Smith.
Smith was on the ballot in 2020, but gained little traction and raised little money in a primary race against the DSCC-endorsed Cal Cunningham. (Most of her monetary support actually came from a super PAC funded by allies of GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell, who believed she would be an easier opponent to defeat in the general election.) Collective PAC said Beasley’s past successes, winning statewide multiple times before losing narrowly in 2020, meant she merited the endorsement.
“The reckoning we’ve had over systemic racism and 400 years of American history has prompted a lot of people who might not otherwise have thought to run for statewide office to do so.”
“It’s a new problem for us,” said Quentin James, the founder of Collective PAC, referring to choosing between multiple Black candidates in key races. “When we launched in 2016, we were scrambling for Black candidates to run. Period.”
The problem may not be isolated to North Carolina. The Maryland gubernatorial primary, likely the party’s best chance to pick up a governor’s seat, could see three or more Black candidates. King, former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, author and nonprofit executive Wes Moore and current Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks could all run.
“If we aren’t careful, if we aren’t strategic, then that narrative of us splitting the Black vote could become more and more common,” said James, pointing to this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, where three Black candidates have struggled to gain traction against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the state’s Democratic primary.
And the structural barriers to Black candidates’ success have obviously not disappeared. In Florida, Rep. Charlie Crist, a former governor and Republican-turned-Democrat, has already announced a bid to challenge GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Some Democrats worry that Crist’s name-identification advantage ― he’s previously run statewide three times, and Florida is notoriously expensive to campaign in ― will give him a leg up over Rep. Val Demings, a Black former Orlando police chief who is expected to announce her own gubernatorial bid.
“She’s a rising star in Democratic politics,” James said. “It’s really important that the party, and everyone in the progressive movement, show their values.”
The highest-profile Black candidates are almost certain to be in Georgia, where Sen. Warnock has to run for reelection and former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams is set for a rematch with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp. In Massachusetts, where Democrats are hoping GOP Gov. Charlie Baker retires, Harvard Professor Danielle Allen has already announced a campaign.
While the overwhelming majority of Black Americans support Democrats, Republicans are also likely to see a number of Black candidates running for statewide office. Vernon Jones ― a former Georgia state representative who switched parties after endorsing then-President Donald Trump for reelection ― is challenging Kemp in a primary. In Georgia’s Senate race, businessman Kelvin King has already announced a run, and Trump has encouraged former University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker to do the same.
In Michigan, former Detroit police Chief James Craig and former Senate candidate John James are both weighing challenges to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Republicans made small gains with Black voters in 2020, a trend Democrats are hoping to reverse. But their bigger immediate concern may be preventing the drop-off in Black and young voter turnout that doomed the party during the 2010 and 2014 midterms. The desire to avoid those Obama-era shortfalls has given Black candidates a chance to pitch themselves as electable.
“The real question is who can bring the band back together,” Kenyatta said, referring to the coalition that lifted President Joe Biden to victory around the country. “When Black folks are on the ballot, more Black people vote. When young people are on the ballot, more young people vote.”