Mar 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats question electability of Black candidates

Illustration of a ballot filled in to create a question mark

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A big-time Maryland donor recently raised a lingering question in some corners of the Democratic Party: Can Black candidates run for and win statewide races?

Why it matters: Democrats rely on Black voters as a lifeline for their party, but Black candidates in 2022 are still plagued with electability questions.

  • "Consider this: Three African-American males have run statewide for Governor and have lost," Barbara Goldberg Goldman wrote to fellow party insiders in December. "This is a fact we must not ignore."

The big picture: The question posed by Goldman isn't just being asked in Maryland.

Black candidates in places like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Wisconsin say they're navigating similar racial dynamics.

  • The questions come despite unprecedented representation by officeholders and candidates, from the vice president to members of Congress and mayors.
  • A snapshot: There are 57 Black U.S. House members, the most ever; Black women are mayors of seven of the 100 most-populous cities; three Black candidates were among the primary contestants for the Virginia governor's race last year, and three are currently competing in Maryland Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The questions also remain despite Black voters boosting Democrats — particularly in long shot elections in states like Georgia, and during presidential contests.

  • One consistent comment relayed to Axios in conversations with over a dozen Black candidates, campaign staff and Democratic strategists: The skepticism doesn't usually come from voters.
  • Instead, it emanates — behind the scenes — from donors, state party leaders and even D.C. pundits.

Driving the news: Axios obtained a December email written by Goldman explaining why she endorsed Tom Perez for governor of Maryland.

  • The former Democratic National Committee chair is among a 10-person field that includes three Black candidates.

Goldman is the state Democratic Party's deputy treasurer and a longtime party donor.

  • In a chain with other party insiders, Goldman explained her thinking: "Which candidate(s) have a better chance in the General election of beating an attractive female [Larry] Hogan team member for whom both Dems and Repubs have expressed genuine likeability [sic]?"
  • "Consider this: Three African-American males have run statewide for Governor and have lost. Maryland is not a Blue state. It's a purple one. This is a fact we must not ignore. In the last 20 years, only eight have been with a Democratic Governor. We need a winning team. IMHO."

Past performance is a valid index to use when considering future successes.

  • The invocation of race as a determining factor, though, takes the discussion beyond pure politics.
  • “The idea that there would be skepticism about a candidate’s electability because they are Black should have no place in the Democratic Party in Maryland — a state with both incredible diversity and disparities — or anywhere else in America in 2022,” said a spokesperson for the Wes Moore campaign.
  • Moore, the former CEO of the anti-poverty nonprofit Robin Hood Foundation, is also running for Maryland governor in the 10-person primary.

In response to questions about her email, Goldman, who is white, told Axios: "I regret making the statement. It neither accurately expresses nor depicts my views, and does not represent my lifelong commitment to supporting Democratic causes and candidates.”

  • A spokesman for Perez's campaign said: "These hurtful and ill-conceived comments do not reflect the values of our campaign — as evidenced by Tom's entire career to advance civil rights and expand opportunity."
  • "Our campaign is building a geographically, demographically and ideologically inclusive coalition focused on electing a Democratic governor who is ready to serve all Marylanders."

What they're saying: John King, who served as Education secretary under former President Obama, is one of those running for Maryland governor.

  • He said Democratic Party insiders have told him: "'Oh, well, if there are multiple candidates of color, then it’s impossible for one of them to win. Certainly, people have made that remark to me."
  • "In Maryland, we have a very diverse state and a diverse electorate, so we are well-positioned to have our first African American governor," King told Axios.
  • King also pointed out that because of the diversity of the primary field, the state could end up making history if it elects its first Latino or Afro-Latino too.
  • "Having served in the administration of our first Black president, one would have hoped we’d be further along in these conversations," he added.
  • Rushern Baker, former executive of Prince George’s County and the third Black candidate in the Democratic primary for Maryland governor, told Axios: “While I don’t agree, it’s a fair criticism understanding we haven’t seen it happen yet. ... Although those candidates didn’t win, it’s not impossible. They just weren’t the right candidates at the right time.”

What they're saying: "We have to challenge that" electability narrative, said Kina Collins, who's running to replace Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.). "Democrats say Democrats love Black women — until it's time to elect us."

  • Chris Jones, a gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas, is not only running in a state that's never had a Black statewide representative but one the Democratic Party has been reluctant to invest in because of its political makeup.
  • "Democratic party stakeholders are, and need to be, ready to fund new types of candidates and new ways of funding if they want to win and maintain democracy in this country," said a spokesman for his campaign.
  • Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who's running for U.S. Senate, "has been hounded by doubts about whether a Black, openly gay, 31-year-old state representative from North Philadelphia can win Pennsylvania," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote.
  • Kenyatta tries to turn his identity into a positive, often saying in campaign speeches: “Do you want someone who says, 'Vote for me because you have no choice'? Or, 'Vote for me because I understand your life'?”

In western Pennsylvania, U.S. House candidate Summer Lee is seeking a seat only ever held by white men.

  • She made history in 2018 when she won a state representative race in southwestern Pennsylvania by beating a 20-year incumbent.
  • Nonetheless, she told Axios she still combats doubts about electability.
  • "It absolutely comes from within the party and from without," Lee said. "The policies that we lift up are things that bring in more people and engage our base in different ways."

Lee and other candidates argue that when Black candidates run, they're able to mobilize members of Black and brown communities who might not otherwise participate — as well as white voters.

  • "If there’s an opportunity for an African American to be a Democratic nominee, I believe they are uniquely positioned to bring along Democrats, Republicans and independents alike," Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who's worked with several campaigns, told Axios.
  • So far this cycle, several Black candidates in statewide and congressional races have been outperforming fundraising expectations and clearing their crowded primary fields.
  • “Anyone doubting a Black candidate’s ‘electability’ should check the scoreboard," said Maddy McDaniel, communications director for Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes.

Go deeper: Read the email.

Go deeper