Why the South saw the most Black Senate candidates in 150 years

The 2020 Senate races in the Deep South included the most Black candidates on the ballot since Reconstruction. None won big, but their competitive campaigns suggest that Black Democrats are viable candidates even in red states.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Rev. Raphael Warnock gives the eulogy for Rayshard Brooks' funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, June 23, 2020. Mr. Warnock will head into a January runoff against Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler after neither candidate won 50% of the votes on Election Day.

In the battle for control of the United States Senate this year, the Deep South fielded more Black candidates than it has since Reconstruction.

In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison raised a previously unfathomable amount of money in what became a competitive fight to unseat one of the more powerful Republicans in the Senate. He was joined by Raphael Warnock in neighboring Georgia, the leading Democrat in a crowded field running for the seat held by an appointed Republican. Mike Espy and Adrian Perkins, meanwhile, launched spirited bids for the Senate in Mississippi and Louisiana, respectively.

Mr. Harrison ran a competitive race against Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham, but lost with only 44% of the vote to Mr. Graham's 54%. Mr. Epsy lost by about 13 percentage points to Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and Mr. Perkins secured only 19% of the votes in Louisiana to lose the race to incumbent Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy. Mr. Warnock won the Georgia special election against Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, but neither secured 50% of the votes, so they will compete in a January runoff for the Senate seat.

Their candidacies came during a year of deep reckoning in the United States over systemic racism and represent a more diverse type of political leader in the South, where Democrats have tended to rally behind white moderates in recent years in often ill-fated attempts to appeal to disaffected Republicans.

“It’s continually a tough fight that we wage to help Democrats imagine a world where people who look like myself, are viable candidates everywhere – not just in your blue states, not just in the urban cities,” said Quentin James of The Collective, a political action committee that supports Black candidates.

The Senate currently has three Black members: Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. Ms. Harris is the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

The candidates faced hurdles in a region that has been a GOP stronghold for a generation. Of their four states, only one had a Democratic governor. In South Carolina, it’s been nearly 15 years since a Democrat won statewide office and 44 years since a Democratic presidential candidate won.

But there are signs of possible change. Joe Biden is leading in Georgia by less than 1% and trailing President Donald Trump by less than 3% in North Carolina – states that haven’t supported a Democrat for the White House since 1992 and 2008, respectively. In Georgia, Mr. Warnock recently appeared at a rally with Ms. Harris, who has endorsed him.

The 2018 elections marked something of a turning point. While Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race, her strong performance, particularly in Atlanta’s Republican-leaning suburbs, suggested there was a path for Black Democrats.

“The more competitive races are, and Black candidates win those competitive races, it diminishes this worry that Black candidates can’t win,” Ms. Abrams recently told The Associated Press.

Mr. Warnock is hoping to come out on top in the January runoff against Ms. Loeffler, who was appointed this year by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Mr. Warnock is pastor of the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. He draws heavily on his experience as a Black man living in the Deep South, from his early days growing up in Georgia public housing to his current support for expanding access to health care, voting rights, criminal justice reform, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Louisiana, Mr. Perkins, a West Point graduate and Army veteran, was seen as the lead candidate in a nonpartisan, qualifying primary to take on Mr. Cassidy, although the Republican won that race.

Mr. Perkins was endorsed by former President Barack Obama and other high-profile Democrats, but his late entrance into the race made fundraising difficult. Mr. Cassidy amassed a sizable campaign account.

In Mississippi, Mr. Espy tried for a second time to become the state’s first Black senator since Reconstruction with his challenge to Ms. Hyde-Smith. She won the race, and Mr. Epsy closed with 42% of the votes.

In 1986, Mr. Espy was elected as Mississippi’s first Black congressman in modern times before heading up the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was endorsed by Mr. Biden. The Republican-dominated state last had a Democrat in the Senate in 1988.

Mr. Espy highlighted his family’s history in Mississippi, where his grandfather started a hospital for African Americans in 1924, and his father owned a funeral home where Emmett Till’s body was taken after the Black 14-year-old from Chicago was tortured and killed in rural Mississippi. Mr. Espy and his twin sister were among the few Black students who integrated an all-white high school.

“It’s about overcoming issues in the old Mississippi and fighting for progress in the future,” he said.

There was also Tennessee Democrat Marquita Bradshaw, a Black environmental activist who faced an uphill battle to secure a U.S. Senate seat that opened up with Republican Lamar Alexander’s retirement.

Ms. Bradshaw, the first Black woman to win a statewide nomination in Tennessee, ran against former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump. She eventually lost with 35% of the votes. Republicans have held both Tennessee seats in the Senate since 1994.

But it was Mr. Harrison who received the most national attention — and money — this year. His more than $100 million in fundraising shattered records for a Senate campaign and helped turn a race that might have otherwise been an afterthought into a genuine competition.

And Mr. Warnock was thrust into the national spotlight this week when Georgia officials ruled his U.S. Senate campaign would be decided by a January runoff.

He faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat Ms. Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who was appointed to the seat in the conservative-leaning state after its former occupant retired.

The Jan. 5 contest is certain to attract a great amount of money and media interest as it has the potential, along with another Senate race in the state that may also go to a runoff, of helping determine which party takes control of the U.S. Senate next year.

Mr. Warnock said that changing demographics give him a chance. He came out on top of Tuesday’s 21-candidate election with 32% of the vote, according to Reuters, although Ms. Loeffler and her nearest Republican rival, Representative Doug Collins, had a combined 46%.

Mr. Warnock said in a recent campaign speech that “No one in Georgia believes that this is a red state any longer,” according to Reuters. “Even the other side does not believe this is a red state, which is why they are engaged in voter suppression.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi; and Ben Nadler in Atlanta contributed to this report. Reuters writers Rich McKay and Susan Cornwell in Atlanta also contributed.

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