Those numbers could skyrocket following the November election. Six Black non-incumbent candidates won major party nominations for Senate seats. Victories for the five Democrats and one lone Republican would constitute a dramatic increase in representation in a body that’s been stubbornly white, wealthy and male for nearly all of its 200-plus years.
It’s unclear if the six nominations set a record, but Black political operatives, activists and candidates all agreed it’s without precedent in recent history.
“It’s certainly something I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” said Chris Scott, political director at Collective PAC, a group fighting to increase Black representation.
On the Democratic side, the path to diversification runs through the South, with Marquita Bradshaw in Tennessee, Mike Espy in Mississippi, Jamie Harrison in South Carolina, Adrian Perkins in Louisiana and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. On the Republican side, John James is running in Michigan. (And in New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the one Black senator up for reelection this year, is a heavy favorite to win.)
Black House members from the South make up nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus. But many of them hail from majority-minority districts, and Southern Black politicians still face significant skepticism about whether a Democrat, let alone a Black Democrat, can win statewide.
“The pundits are always chirping in people’s ears saying, ‘Oh man, a Democrat can’t win, especially a Black Democrat. And you throw on top, he’s a millennial.’ Of course they’re speaking into people’s ears. But the pundits and naysayers aren’t the ones determining elections,” said Perkins, 34, who would be the youngest member of the Senate if elected.
But there are more high-profile Black Senate candidates this election cycle than ever before. There’s no doubt that their races are tough, but they’re also considered more winnable than in past cycles. And there’s been significant frustration among some of the candidates and their supporters that national Democrats haven’t given them more money and resources.
“They’ve given a little something, but I’d call it a pittance,” Espy said of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “It’s nothing like what should be happening in a race like this.”
“The Senate is certainly a body in our government that could use some more diversity.”
If Democrats are serious about diversifying the Senate, it may require more investment in these Southern states that are heavily conservative ― but also have some of the highest proportions of Black residents in the country.
Black candidates say the region is ripe for more investment. They point to changing demographics and a greater willingness for Black candidates to step up and not wait their turn ― inspired by people like former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
“This is a new South ― a new South that is bold, that is inclusive, that is diverse,” said Harrison. “What we are seeing now, and what we’re witnessing, is this emergence of leaders in this new South, in African American leaders who are taking a message that is not just relegated to the African American community, but a message of hope that I think can inspire all communities.”
If California Sen. Kamala Harris (D) ascends to the vice presidency, there could be only two Black senators in office next year unless one of these candidates breaks through. That would leave the Black community with little voice in a chamber of Congress set to debate crucial issues: police reform, gun violence, economic recovery from a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black Americans, D.C. statehood and potentially the first-ever nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure to move legislation to address these structural issues,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC. “And if you have a Senate that does not reflect the populace, it’s going to be a problem.”
‘You Can’t Ignore These Issues’
Espy, 66, also ran for the Senate in Mississippi in 2018, getting 46% of the vote ― good enough to outperform both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s presidential bids.
Race was an issue in the campaign. Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith faced blowback after she joked that she’d love to attend a “public hanging” ― in a state with a history of lynchings. News reports also found that she attended a “segregation academy” in the 1970s and has repeatedly defended Confederate supporters. Espy is again facing Hyde-Smith, who won that special election two years ago.
Back then, the Clarion-Ledger reported that Espy was largely avoiding talking about any controversial issues, including race, and said his campaign was “just keeping our head down.”
Not this time. Now, race is at the center of his campaign.
“It’s just a different time,” said Espy, who served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. “We’ve got George Floyd. He’s been murdered. Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. We have, in our face, cases of police misconduct and violations when you consider the issues of social justice. So a candidate for Senate living in these times, if you’re serious and really want to serve the people, you can’t ignore these issues.”
But there’s a second reason Espy is talking more about race. Last time, he said, he didn’t connect with young people and give them a reason to vote for him.
“They didn’t [come out and vote for me] because they didn’t know who I was. Here was this gray-headed 64-year-old guy. They couldn’t identify with me. They didn’t know my story,” he said.
Now, Espy said he talks about how he integrated his high school in 1968 as one of just 18 Black students among 800 white students. He had to fight every day, was called the N-word, and even had teachers cursing and spraying fire extinguishers at him. As a senior, he led a walkout to protest that the school wasn’t hiring Black teachers.
“I led the walkout, and because I led it, the superintendent docked my GPA two points for every day we were out. We were out three days. So my GPA was docked six points, and I’m trying to go to college. So when I tell these students in 2020 that, you know, they’re not the only ones that protested against racism and social inequity, they can identify with this.”
Espy has featured his own personal story, including many of these details, in some of his ads and videos.
Other Black Democratic Senate contenders this cycle are also highlighting their own personal stories ― including their fights against racism.
“A reason why I think biography is so important right now is because the American people want to know who you are. They want to know your values,” said Perkins, who is the grandson of a sharecropper and was the first Black cadet elected class president at West Point. He served three tours in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the Bronze Star and the rank of captain. He later graduated from Harvard Law School and is now the mayor of Shreveport.
Warnock, 50, is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the famous Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
He’s running in a special election against Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R), who was appointed late last year to temporarily fill the seat vacated by Republican Johnny Isakson. Georgia didn’t hold a primary for this race so Warnock is not the only Democrat in contention, but he has the support of Abrams, the DSCC and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young (who was a close King confidant).
In a recent ad, Warnock talked about how as a 12-year-old in 1982, he was accused of stealing and dragged out of a store. He was told he looked suspicious because his hands were in his pockets.
“The Senate is certainly a body in our government that could use some more diversity,” Warnock said. “We witnessed this summer, in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd and so many cases like that ― Ahmaud Arbery here in Georgia ― a renewed reckoning with race in this country. I didn’t know all of this would be happening when I announced on Jan. 30 that I was running, but here we are. And I have to be honest, I don’t think there could be a time more apt and fitting for someone like me, the pastor of Dr. King’s church no less, running to be the United States senator from the state of Georgia.”
“We’ve got to address those because I can tell you this,” said Harrison, 44, referring to the disparate treatment of Black people by the criminal justice system. “I don’t want my sons ― I have two boys, a 6-year-old and a 1 -year-old ― when they’re my age 40 years from now, I don’t want them to have to be sitting here addressing these same type of issues and problems because my generation, and the folks of today, didn’t do what we needed to do to make sure that we lived up to the ideals of this great nation, that all people are created equal. So I’m going to fight my heart out to make sure that we’re doing that.”
Fighting For National Support
All six of these Black Senate candidates are underdogs. Only Warnock and James, the lone Republican, are running in what could be considered swing states. Bradshaw, Espy, Harrison and Perkins are all hoping to win elections in solidly GOP territory.
Warnock is the candidate most likely to receive major national support, though the unusual nature of his election ― it’s an all-party contest that is nearly certain to go to a January runoff ― means Democrats might not make major investments until after Election Day. The DSCC has announced plans to spend at least $1 million helping Harrison, and other national groups are going to be spending in Georgia in the coming weeks. But the other candidates are unlikely to receive any significant backing from national groups.
“The Democratic ecosystem is not immune to the implicit bias that affects the rest of the country,” said Steve Phillips, a Democratic donor who hosts the podcast “Democracy in Color” and has pushed the party to focus more on Black candidates and voters. “You do see it playing itself out in the levels of support for these candidacies.”
Phillips highlighted, by contrast, the level of support for Amy McGrath, a white former fighter pilot running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky.
“She’s raised $50 million. There is very little empirical electoral evidence that a Democrat has much of a shot there,” he said.
Espy argued that his campaign ― whose internal polling he said shows him down only 5 percentage points ― deserves national support.
“We’ve got 50 days, and they’ve got enough time to rectify that situation. We’d love to hear from the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and the DSCC and have them send us a whopping check,” he said.
The DSCC noted they had sent the maximum allowable donation to Espy’s campaign and helped pay for polling and field organizing tools. They’ve also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct mail aiming to improve Warnock’s standing in the race.
“As someone whose own election helped break barriers in the Senate, the strength and the diversity of our Democratic candidates across so many battlegrounds this cycle is really inspiring,” said Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who chairs the DSCC and was the first Latina ever elected to the Senate. “We have impressive Black leaders in particular who are stepping up to bring new inclusive representation to their states, and we’re working to help them compete and win.”
“What you’re finding is a lot of Black candidates who aren’t asking permission to run.”
Before this cycle, the DSCC had very little record of supporting Black candidates over the past decade. The group stayed neutral in the first Senate primaries won by Booker and Harris, and endorsed against Black candidates in primaries in Illinois in 2016 and in Texas, Kentucky and North Carolina this cycle.
Several national Democrats pointed to the DSCC’s decision to back Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar in Texas when two Black candidates ― Houston city council member Amanda Edwards and state Sen. Royce West ― were in the same race as an example of how the group can make it harder for Black candidates to advance. Hegar eventually squeaked by West in a primary runoff in July.
Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, said the DSCC’s preferred method of picking a candidate early and rallying behind them made running harder for Black candidates like West and Edwards, who often need more time to convince donors and elected officials of their viability.
“There has to be a reconsideration of these early endorsements,” she said. “They present a challenge when you have these kinds of barriers. It just doesn’t allow the time for potentially successful candidates to get the runway to start and put together successful campaigns.”
The DSCC’s early endorsements can benefit Black candidates, too: Warnock, Harrison, Espy and Perkins all quickly received the committee’s backing after entering the race.
In fact, Bradshaw is the only one of these Black Democratic candidates who doesn’t have the DSCC’s backing. She beat the DSCC’s preferred candidate ― Army veteran James Mackler, who is white ― in a surprise upset in the August primary.
“I would love all the national support and money that they wish to put into Tennessee, but let’s make this clear,” said Bradshaw, 46, an environmental activist and single mom. “This is about making sure that working people have a voice and that they’re empowered in this process. The national endorsement is the gravy and the icing on the cake.”
Even when the DSCC stays neutral, other groups can put their thumb on the scale. During the 2016 Senate primary battle between Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen in Maryland, the Black congresswoman could not even win the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus’ political action committee. Why? The lawmaker-turned-lobbyist whom she’d ousted in a primary years earlier sat on the group’s board. Meanwhile, Mike Miller, then Maryland’s state senate president, said Van Hollen was “born to be a senator.” Van Hollen eventually won the contest.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, who narrowly lost to DSCC-endorsed Amy McGrath in the Democratic primary this summer, said part of the issue remains the dominant conception of politics in the party, which focuses on winning over swing voters ― who are nearly always white.
“That has often equated to a certain model of a candidate that doesn’t include people that look like me and come from where I come from,” Booker said. “And it typically involves a style of politics or a political theory that runs away from structural issues, that runs away from racism and poverty, and tries to peel off conservative votes.”
The typical pipelines for candidates have traditionally not been as open to Black candidates as they have been for white candidates either. Learning the ropes as a congressional aide is one path to running for office, but the racial makeup of the staffs of members of Congress is still overwhelmingly white.
“There have been offices like the United States Senate that historically we have not been able to run for, have not been open to us. So in that sense, there’s no question that you’re breaking through new ground,” Warnock said.
But fundraising remains the major hurdle. Candidates of color, or candidates who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, don’t have as many natural donor networks to tap for resources.
“The U.S. Senate race has become so infused by big money, and that has been a deterrent for more working people ― not only Black women ― but working people coming into this process,” said Bradshaw, adding, “If I make less than $15 an hour, more than likely I know a lot of other people that make less than $15 an hour. My friends are not likely to max out when they give, and my family members are not likely to max out. And that’s what usually happens with white males. They usually have a network of people that max out within the first few weeks of their campaign.”
Things aren’t necessarily much better in the GOP. This cycle, national Republicans have spent heavily in Michigan to boost James and his appealing biography ― he’s a 39-year-old Iraq War veteran who runs a family logistics business. But during his first run in 2018, they ignored him until the final weeks of the election, and national Republican leaders spent months encouraging rapper Kid Rock to run instead.
James’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A New South?
There are now three Black senators, and only one of them ― Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina ― is from the South. Other than Scott, the last time there were Black senators from the South was during Reconstruction in the 1870s.
This enduring lack of representation is jarring. The Senate’s skew toward smaller, more rural and whiter states means the average Black voter has 16% less influence on the Senate’s makeup than the average voter, according to a University of New Hampshire study.
Mississippi, where Espy is running, has the second-highest percentage of Black residents as a proportion of its population (38%). (The District of Columbia, which is not a state but should be, is first.) Louisiana is third (32%), Georgia is fourth (31%), South Carolina is sixth (27%) and Tennessee is 11th (17%).
So it’s not surprising that these states are the ones with Black Democratic Senate candidates this cycle.
Demographics are fueling this new South. While the Black population in the United States has not changed substantially, the number of majority-Black counties increased from 65 to 72 between 2000 and 2018, concentrated in the South. According to the Pew Research Center, one of the factors in this growth may be the reverse migration of Black Americans moving from the North to the South, as well as a shift from the cities to the suburbs.
But there’s also a feeling of being neglected that is driving electoral change and a willingness by Black candidates to just run.
“What you’re finding is a lot of Black candidates who aren’t asking permission to run,” Harrison said. “I didn’t ask permission from anybody to run. I decided to run and then informed some of the leaders in the party that I was going to do so, regardless of whether or not they had anybody in mind. ... For a long time, there was this whole thing about, well, you need to run somebody that is, you know, Republican-lite or whatever. I think at the end of the day, we just need to run people who reflect the values of the communities that they represent and that they want to represent them.”
Warnock said that as he moves around his state, “there is a sense among many that it’s time” ― a feeling that is fueled by Abrams’ run in 2018. Abrams was the first woman and first Black person to be Democratic leader of the Georgia state House. When she won her primary, she made history as the first Black woman to be a major-party gubernatorial nominee.
Abrams had plenty of doubters who didn’t think that Georgia would elect a Black woman to the governorship. But her run inspired people far outside the state, making her a national Democratic star and someone who was discussed as a vice presidential nominee for Joe Biden.
“Georgia has been getting closer and closer to the goal of flipping this state, cycle after cycle. Often progress comes in fits and starts,” Warnock said. “Over the last few years, we’ve closed in steadily toward the goal.”
“People around the country have historically written off the South as this sea of red and there’s no way to get a Democrat elected or an African American elected. We are seeing that change, and we’re going to see that change in November as well, to be a very, very strong symbol that there’s a new South that is way more inclusive and way more progressive,” said Perkins.
Espy first ran for Congress in 1986, at age 32, defeating a white Republican to become the first Black person to represent Mississippi in Congress since Reconstruction. He was reelected three times in the district, which was not majority-black at the time.
“I see so many parallels to this race,” Espy said.
“The Democratic establishment back then thought the race was unwinnable for an African American. They tried to put up two white Democrats,” he recalled. “And this time, the same thing. Those in D.C. who give money are reticent to doing it because they don’t think [victory is] possible. They’re doing some of it for us because we did so well 18 months ago. ... But still, to me, 18 months later, we should be the recipient of more revenue and more notice and more acclaim because we’ve done the heavy work.”
“I’ve been in this situation before where we were doubted, where those in the national Democratic leadership looked at Mississippi and they just said, ‘Can’t be done,’” Espy added. “But someone has to do it. And I did it before and we can do it again.”
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