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Push to elect Black women to Senate turns to North Carolina and Florida

Candidates face barriers, including questions about ‘electability’

Florida Democratic Rep. Val Demings, left, is planning to run for Senate.
Florida Democratic Rep. Val Demings, left, is planning to run for Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Kamala Harris’ ascension to the vice presidency left the Senate without any Black women. To fill that void, activists are eyeing opportunities to elect Black female senators in North Carolina and Florida, two perennial battleground states. 

Last week, news broke that Florida Democratic Rep. Val B. Demings is planning to challenge Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. In North Carolina, two Black women are running for the state’s open Senate seat: former state Sen. Erica Smith and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to lead the court. The high-profile candidates and the states’ competitive natures make the pair of races top opportunities to elect Black women, activists say. 

There’s a sense of urgency to quickly fill the void Harris left in the Senate. When the first Black woman elected to the Senate, Illinois Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, lost reelection in 1998, 18 years passed before Harris was elected in 2016. 

“What we’re not doing is waiting another 20-something years to elect the next Black woman,” said Glynda Carr, who leads Higher Heights for America PAC, which supports Black female candidates. 

Focus shifts south

While candidates could still enter other Senate races, “realistically” North Carolina and Florida are the most promising opportunities to elect Black women to the Senate, said Stefanie Brown James, co-founder of The Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates. 

In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the other two Senate battlegrounds that are potential Democratic pickup opportunities, the Democratic fields do not yet include a Black woman. Republican Kathy Barnette, a Black woman, is running in Pennsylvania, but she faces a crowded and costly primary. Some activists noted that Emilia Sykes, the minority leader in the Ohio state House, could jump into the state’s open Senate race. Her campaign did not return a request for comment. 

The Collective PAC quickly endorsed Beasley and Demings, who has not yet formally announced her campaign. Brown James said the early endorsements are “a signal to other organizations to not wait on the sidelines.”

“They’re going to have an uphill battle because it is not easy to win statewide office, period, let alone as a Black person, let alone as a Black woman,” she said. “And so we need other organizations, other Democratic establishment organizations, to get onboard early.”

Beasley has also been endorsed by EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights and is an influential player in contested primaries. 

The dearth of Black women did not necessarily drive Beasley’s decision to run for Senate, but she said in a phone interview she was cognizant her candidacy could affect other women. She noted that seeing Pat Timmons Goodson, the first Black woman to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court, presiding over a courtroom was a “life-changing moment” for her. 

“I am very much aware that my candidacy is important. That people, very much, in the state of North Carolina want to see those of us in leadership be reflective of the diverse population we have,” Beasley said. 

Brown James said choosing to endorse one of the two Black women running in North Carolina was an agonizing decision. But The Collective PAC and EMILY’s List still backed Beasley over Smith, citing the former justice’s two successful statewide judicial campaigns. Beasley lost her bid for a full term as chief justice in 2020 by 401 votes

Smith said having two Black women running is good for the state, the party and the country, but national Democratic groups should stay out of the race.

“Primaries are healthy,” Smith said in a phone interview. “Primaries give us the opportunity for the strongest candidate to emerge that can win in November.”

Smith ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2020, losing the Democratic primary to former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and went on to lose the general election after revelations of an extramarital affair. Smith said she is hopeful the DSCC will not take sides in the primary this time. 

Asked about supporting Black female candidates, Jessica Knight Henry, the DSCC’s deputy executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, said in an emailed statement: “Black women are at the core of the Democratic Party and a crucial group for our success in the general election. We know that campaigns engaging effectively with communities of color is critical to protecting and expanding Democrats’ Senate majority.”

“At this stage, we are assessing the candidate fields carefully, keeping lines of communications open with campaigns, and building the infrastructure we’ll need to win next November,” she added.  

Obstacles persist 

The DSCC’s decision to back Cunningham was emblematic of a broader problem in the party when it comes to “the antiquated notion of electability,” Smith said.

Smith and others said the perception that Black women cannot win competitive races, particularly statewide contests with a majority white electorate, has been a persistent obstacle. 

Beasley said when she ran for a district court judgeship more than 20 years ago, people doubted that she could win. 

“There were people who thought because I was young, [an] African American woman and a mom, that I wouldn’t be able to be successful,” she recalled. “But I knew that with hard work, that we would be able to pull this off. And that race I won by almost 30 points.”

Kelly Dittmar, research director at the Center for American Women and Politics, said those doubts that Black women can win present a “roadblock” when it comes to building organizational support and raising enough money to compete. 

Multiple female candidates and activists said fundraising is a significant hurdle for Black women. During the 2018 midterm elections, the Center for Responsive Politics found, “The average Black female candidate raised 46 percent less than the average white male candidate, but she also raised 55 percent less than the average white female candidate.”

That’s why multiple activists stressed that outside groups and the Democratic Party should support Black women early in their campaigns. Barnette, a political commentator and a veteran of the Army Reserves running for Senate in Pennsylvania, said the Republican Party also needs to better support diverse candidates.

GOP leaders, Barnette said, “need to play catch-up and recognize that people want our party to look for different faces and different voices. We don’t have a message problem, we have a messenger problem.” 

Barnette noted she has not received support from groups that support Black candidates because they tend to support Democrats, and most Black female candidates are Democrats. 

In 2020, a record 13 Black women ran for Senate, nine Democrats and four Republicans, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Dittmar said it is possible that record could be broken again in 2022. 

But in the last election cycle, just one Black female candidate was a major-party nominee for Senate: Tennessee Democrat Marquita Bradshaw, who defeated the DSCC’s preferred candidate in the primary but then lost the general election. 

The challenges primaries pose to Black women underscore the need for early support and investment, activists said. 

“We need to say, ‘Black women can win here,’” said Yvette Simpson, CEO of Democracy for America, adding that political parties can leverage their infrastructures to connect with voters and generate enthusiasm for a candidate. 

“If they do that, we can win and we can win anywhere,” Simpson added.

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