Will 2018 be a turning point for black candidates – and Democrats?

Why We Wrote This

High-profile gubernatorial campaigns featuring African-American candidates could help sway the debate over whether Democrats are better off prioritizing minority turnout or focusing on white swing voters.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Ben Jealous, former NAACP president and current Maryland gubernatorial candidate, shakes hands with supporters during a campaign rally for the state's Democratic primary in Silver Spring on June 18.

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Throughout US history, only two states – Virginia and Massachusetts – have ever elected a black governor. This fall, those ranks may increase. Georgia Democrats have already nominated an African-American woman, Stacey Abrams, as their gubernatorial candidate. And in Maryland, the top two Democrats facing off in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary – former NAACP president Ben Jealous and Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker – are both black. A win for any of these candidates in November would flip their states at the gubernatorial level. It could also propel a larger shift in the Democratic Party’s strategy from prioritizing white swing voters to focusing more on energizing minority voters, as the nation’s electorate grows increasingly diverse. “There will be some point when the gains of appealing to minority voters – either by making appeals to them directly in a more effective way, or by nominating or supporting a candidate they identify with – start to outweigh the losses or potential losses of white voters,” says Matt Mongiello, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. “[Democrats are] trying to figure out if this is that moment.”

Jonathan Rosero knows who’s got his vote in Maryland’s Democratic primary for governor.

Still, he’s excited that the top two contenders for the nomination are black.

“It would be making history that we might have an African-American governor,” says Mr. Rosero, a local veterinarian, as he waited for Ben Jealous to make an appearance at a get-out-the-vote event in Langley Park last week. “It doesn’t hurt to have those kinds of choices.”

Mr. Jealous, a former NAACP president, and Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker emerged in a June 10 poll as frontrunners in the state’s crowded Democratic primary field.

Their showdown Tuesday comes on the heels of Stacey Abrams’s momentous nomination last month as the first black female gubernatorial candidate in Georgia. And it follows a series of historic wins by minority candidates in 2017, including African-American lieutenant governors in Virginia and New Jersey. Many of these wins were propelled by a strong turnout among black voters.

Together, political analysts say, they signal what could be a shift in the Democratic Party’s strategy as the nation’s electorate grows increasingly diverse: Instead of prioritizing white swing voters, who wound up electing President Trump in 2016, why not focus more on energizing black voters, like those who twice handed Barack Obama the White House? 

“There will be some point when the gains of appealing to minority voters – either by making appeals to them directly in a more effective way or by nominating or supporting a candidate they identify with – start to outweigh the losses or potential losses of white voters,” says Matt Mongiello, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. “[Democrats are] trying to figure out if this is that moment.”

Governorships are especially key if Democrats want to gain more influence at the state level. Republicans currently hold 33 governor’s mansions and 56 percent of all state legislative seats. A win for Jealous, Mr. Baker, or Ms. Abrams in the fall would not only flip their states at the gubernatorial level, they say; it would also help prove to black voters that the party is invested in building coalitions that include leaders who look like them.

“Nobody is saying that [governors] should always be African American,” says Andra Gillespie, who teaches political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “But … when this only happens once in a blue moon, it does raise larger questions about whether or not blacks, when they’re running for office, are taken seriously as leaders, especially in states where Democrats routinely hold power.”

Running for statewide office is challenging for any candidate. Local officials need only appeal to a city or county, and even members of the US House of Representatives have only to worry about their district. A governor – or a senator – has to speak to the concerns of an entire state and all its diversity.

For black candidates, that challenge is compounded by electoral makeup. Most states are still majority white and none is majority black. “From a purely numbers standpoint, you can’t get voted into office just on the black vote,” Professor Gillespie says. Even in a state that’s, say, 30 percent African-American, a black candidate will have to put together a non-black coalition that’s willing to support him or her, she says. That’s a challenge in Deep South states, where African-Americans make up a significant part of the electorate, but where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Even blue states have struggled to place black candidates in statewide office. Voters have only ever elected 10 black US senators and two black governors – Doug Wilder (D) of Virginia, who served from 1990 to 1994, and Deval Patrick (D) of Massachusetts, in office from 2007 to 2015.

Bias a major hurdle

Analysts say bias, both real and perceived, is a major hurdle. Some voters simply don’t want to vote for a candidate because of their race or gender. More often, however, people will decide not to support a minority candidate because they think that person’s chances of winning are slimmer, Professor Mongiello says. Voters may think: “ ‘I don’t want to waste my vote or money on a candidate of color in a state where people are not going to accept that,’ ” he says. “That [attitude] adds up.”

The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When voters hesitate to cast a ballot for a candidate because he or she seems less likely to win, it decreases the candidate’s actual chances of winning. And candidates, especially those already holding elected positions, often know that and avoid running altogether. Why risk losing?

Former Georgia Rep. Denise Majette (D) did it, surprising everybody in 2004 by running for a Senate seat vacated by Zell Miller despite a lack of name recognition and statewide fundraising apparatus. Though she became the first black woman to be nominated for the US Senate in Georgia, she lost by 20 points to Republican Johnny Isakson in the general election. “She hasn’t held political office since,” Gillespie says. “That’s the risk.”

For some, the only way to break that cycle is to have more black candidates running and winning. In his book “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority,” Steve Phillips contends that the Democratic Party has failed to capitalize on Obama’s example, and has taken for granted the notion that black voters will always stick with Democrats.

“Blacks supporting Democrats is not a given,” says Mr. Phillips, co-founder of the San Francisco-based political organization Democracy in Color. “This policy of benign neglect poses a real danger.”

But others argue Democrats ignored working-class whites to their detriment in 2016, and that continuing to do so while focusing more on African-Americans just doesn’t add up. While black turnout for Hillary Clinton was lower than it had been for President Obama, she also did terribly with whites without a college degree, losing them by 31 points, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.

“If Clinton had replicated the black turnout levels enjoyed by Obama in 2012, she still would have lost the 2016 election, because the other shifts against her were so powerful,” Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the report, writes for Vox.

Midterms as a test case

The results of the 2018 midterms are likely to have a big impact on which way Democrats will go in 2020 and beyond.

“You have Stacey, you have Ben, you have Andrew Gillum [running for governor] in Florida ... all in the mold of Obama and what he was able to accomplish in terms of inspiring progressive, multiracial coalitions,” Phillips says. “These races are a test of the progressive movement, in terms of its ability to broaden its conception of leadership and who people are looking for.”

The candidates themselves know what’s at stake. “It speaks well for Maryland and the diversity of the state,” Baker says at a campaign stop in Randallstown on the last day of early voting.  

In a phone interview, Jealous draws from history: “Doug Wilder showed us how to win these things: you build a bigger, more robust coalition than most people think is possible,” he says. “And today you have a rising generation of leadership who understand that the path to taking back the country is through our states.”

The hope, however, is that in 2018, voters – especially Democratic voters – will care more about what candidates bring to the table than the color of their skin.

“The fact that they’re both minority is icing on the cake,” says Rosero, the Jealous supporter, who himself is running for state office. For most voters, he says, the main question is: “ ‘This is what’s going on in my life: What are you going to do about it?’ Race, gender, all that is secondary.”

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