When Dr. Cameron Webb — who has a medical degree, a law degree, and a White House fellowship to his name — approached fellow Democrats about running for a swing seat in central Virginia, he recalls being praised for his “incredible background.” But he was also asked if he was worried that white voters wouldn’t vote for him because he’s Black.
“I kind of cut through the air like, ‘Well, white people like me too,’” Webb recalled in an interview. He urged those Democrats not to let their “fear of other people’s racism” reinforce a false notion that a Black candidate couldn’t win the predominantly white district. Months later, Webb is now the party’s choice to appear on the ballot in November.
Charles Booker, a Black 35-year-old state lawmaker in Kentucky, heard the same as he planned to face off against the Democratic party favorite, Amy McGrath, in his home state last month. He ultimately lost by about 3 percentage points, but the race was much closer than expected, especially considering McGrath outspent Booker almost 10-to-1 in TV ads.
“I spent the majority of the campaign explaining to people how I can run for statewide office in Kentucky as a Black person,” Booker said in an interview. “When people would ask about ‘How do I connect?’ Well, my response is ‘Well, how do you connect with anybody?’”
In bids for public office across the country, candidates of color are still battling lingering effects of systemic racism — including skewed perceptions of “viability,” tougher fundraising and some hesitation from the party establishment. And they say it’s those same deep-rooted racial barriers that have allowed Congress to remain a predominantly white, male and privileged institution centuries after its founding, according to interviews with more than two dozen candidates of color, lawmakers and strategists.
This summer’s reckoning on race has refocused attention on the inequities that have long stained the country’s economic and political systems. In recent weeks, many Black and Latino candidates, from Ohio to Georgia say they’ve seen a surge in support, and Congress could add nearly a dozen Black and Latino candidates after this fall’s elections.
The successes so far in 2020, however, are not the result of a recent cultural movement. Black and Latino political leaders have spent years building up their own powerful networks devoted to hoisting their candidates against the self-funders and well-connected, especially in previous cycles when party organs sometimes overlooked candidates of color, stifling their ability to fundraise.
“What ends up happening a lot of times, you have minority candidates that are really good candidates but for some strange reason don’t get the backing of the Democratic party. That’s beginning to change,” said state Sen. Royce West (D-Texas), who lost last week’s primary to the Senate Democratic campaign arm’s candidate, MJ Hegar. West, who is Black, was reportedly outspent 102-to-1 in radio and television ads leading up to election day.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who leads the campaign arm of the Congressional Black Caucus, said when he was first elected to Congress in the late 1990s, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had “no interest” in Black candidates running in districts that weren’t more than 50 percent African American.
“It was hard initially to convince folks that can happen,” Meeks said, noting that CBC leaders spent years telling DCCC officials and others that it was the quality of the candidate — and the resources behind them — that mattered far more than their race. Then in 2018, Democrats took back the House in part because a half-dozen Black candidates won heavily-white districts in states like Georgia, Connecticut and Illinois.
“Folks started to see that these African American candidates don’t just have to represent African Americans. And they can win,” Meeks said.
The work to transform the makeup of Congress is far from complete, though it is at its most diverse point in history, with people of color making up nearly one-quarter of its membership — up from 16 percent a decade ago. About two-dozen Black, Latino, Asian and Native American members were elected to the House in 2018 alone. The same can’t be said in the Senate, where 91 out of 100 senators of the chamber are white.
Candidates of color say it’s been even harder to break through in the upper chamber, citing the high costs of a state-wide race, conventional views of electability and a lack of initial investment of recruitment for candidates at the state and local level.
The divide was laid bare during Congress’s debate on policing reform, with much of the attention turned to the Senate’s three Black lawmakers — Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Scott in particular, the lone Black Republican senator, was moved to defend himself against insinuations of being a “token” as he led the GOP effort on police reform and even shared the hateful, racist messages he received at a caucus lunch.
There are some signs of progress in the Senate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, led by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, has backed three Black candidates for Senate this year: Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, Raphael Warnock in Georgia and Mike Espy in Mississippi. And the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee is throwing its weight behind John James, who is Black and will take on Sen. Gary Peters in a competitive race in Michigan.
In an interview, Harrison highlighted that out of nearly 2,000 individuals who have served in the Senate, only 10 have been Black.
“Ten? Out of 2,000?” Harrison said, noting that he sees hope in the number of black candidates running this cycle. “I hope that nationally as a party, where we are at this point in time, that we will say this is a special moment in the history of the United States Senate and we need to leverage this moment and invest in these campaigns and these candidacies.”
The racial gap is most glaring in the Republican party, which has in both the House and Senate just two Black members, nine Latino members, zero Asian members, and has long failed to expand its party diversity. This year, the House GOP campaign arm said it made a push to recruit more diverse members, and six of its 53 top targets are people of color. That includes Army veteran Wesley Hunt, who is Black and has raised over $3.1 million to win a Texas swing seat — though its less than the $4.2 million haul of the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.
In both parties, one of the biggest hurdles is the pipeline of potential candidates, ensuring there are people of color winning local and state elections, or gaining experience in staff roles in Congress or elsewhere. Oftentimes, future lawmakers are former Hill staffers. But internships on Capitol Hill can be hard to get without familial connections, and many were until recently unpaid.
“Cory Gardner was a staffer before he ever ran for the Senate, John Thune was a staffer before he ran for the Senate,” said Scott of South Carolina. “I’ve been blessed to have a very diverse team. But if you don’t see diversity on all the teams in the Senate, then you probably won’t see diversity anywhere else.”
Senate Democrats released a report recently on staff diversity that found seven Democratic senators have 50 percent or more staff who identify as non-Caucasian, with Booker leading at 65 percent.
By far, the biggest barrier to entry to Congress is fundraising — raising enough cash to nab the attention of big donors or the party establishment, which is crucial to winning a primary, let alone making it onto the ballot in November.
“It’s very difficult when you can’t sit at the dinner table and think, ‘Ok how many cousins do we have in the family who can max out tomorrow?’ That’s just not the reality,” said Desiree Tims, a Georgetown Law graduate running against a GOP incumbent in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
“The money — it keeps so many people from not just winning, but from just running, from getting in the race,” added Tims, who has been backed financially by national groups like Emily’s List and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. The DCCC threw its support behind her last week.
In the last two cycles, the campaign arms of both the CBC and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have become more adept at raising big sums — altering the power dynamics that long defined House campaigns. Officials say the CBC and the CHC groups are on track to raise $7 million and $13 million, respectively, this cycle — compared to their hauls of $1 million and $6.1 million in 2016. Both groups hired political directors for the first time this cycle, as well as adding more staff and conducting their own polling in key races.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who leads the Hispanic caucus’s campaign arm, said he took that job with the goal of doubling the number of Latino members from 25 to 50 within a decade. And he’s confident he’ll reach that, with help from candidates like Candace Valenzuela in Texas — one of his top-priority races this cycle — who won her runoff in Texas this week.
“[Institutions such as the DCCC] were created, with all due respect, by straight white males, who back then thought you had to be a straight white male to get elected,” Cárdenas said, while acknowledging the group’s improvements in recent cycles: “I think DCCC has come a long way.”
The DCCC’s executive director, who is Latina, works closely with both the CBC and the CHC campaign groups, and the group’s staff, generally, is far more diverse this cycle after facing public criticism on the issue.
“We’ve proven time and time again that progress is being made,” Cárdenas said.
That growing network of support means that while many of Congress’s Black or Latino lawmakers felt mostly alone in their first campaigns, those who come after them can draw from a deeper well of support.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) — a member of the CBC who now helps recruit and coach candidates for the DCCC — said when she first ran for office in 2016, she got by on home-cooked dinners from friends and Google searches about how to run a campaign.
She eventually received help from groups like Emily’s List and the CBC PAC, and suddenly she had a much clearer shot at winning in a state that had only ever elected white men to Congress. Now in her second term, Blunt Rochester spends time offering not just checks but tangible feedback for first-timers.
“I would have a consultant who would say, you need to do X, Y and Z and I would say, but all of your clients before me were white men,” Blunt Rochester said in an interview. “One of the most important things I learned is, trust my gut.”
Pat Timmons-Goodson — who was the first Black woman to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court — said some of the earliest support she received in her bid for the House this year came from the CBC, which was crucial in a district that included two of the most expensive media markets in her state.
“They came on very, very early and let it be known, we’re here for you. We have resources that assist you. We’ll do what we need to strengthen you and to support you, and it’s not just limited to money,” Timmons-Goodson said in an interview.
Timmons-Goodson, who was an Obama appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, is now one of the Democratic party’s top prospects for ousting GOP incumbents in November, along with about a dozen other candidates of color. That target list now includes more Black women than white men.
The national party is still selective about which candidates it picks to promote, often waiting until a person has raised enough cash or survived their primary. Critics say that lag time can sometimes tip the balance in favor of the candidate with the most cash on-hand or best-connected with local groups.
Party officials, however, have long maintained that the Washington establishment shouldn’t hand-pick a candidate in a competitive primary.
And minority candidates have learned how to raise cash without relying on the DCCC or DSCC. The financial lifelines for many candidates of color, particularly early on in the races, have often come from groups like Emily’s List, Higher Heights and the Collective PAC — groups that backed many of Democratic candidates of color who won in 2018.
“2018 was a real game-changer and, I think, a turning point for raising the level of investment you saw in Black candidates,” said Christopher Scott, campaign director for the Collective PAC, which was founded in 2016 to bolster Black representation in Congress. “Everything’s not fixed in one day, but I think we definitely have a great baseline set there.”
Some Democrats say that progress could be sped by the national movement around racial justice that’s galvanizing donors across the country. This quarter, for instance, four out of the five Democratic challengers who raised the most money are people of color. And the average donation for the CBC PAC is $12, signaling a grassroots energy.
Black Senate candidates this cycle are also hauling in big numbers. In the second quarter, James raised $6.4 million in his race against Peters. Harrison, meanwhile, raised a stunning $14 million in the second quarter in his bid to take on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Espy raised nearly triple the amount of Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith (R-Miss.) and Warnock raised about $3 million.
“Do I think that people are responding to this moment? Yes,” Warnock said in an interview. “We seem…to be at an inflection point in our country where these disparities around criminal justice, around inequality and health care seem to be coming into sharp focus in a way that makes the candidacy of somebody like me even more urgent.”
Warnock is one of many candidates of color who said they’d been talking candidly about race from the start, and not just in the two months since George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police sparked nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism.
“It’s not about seizing on the momentum of the crisis. This conversation has been happening for years,” Webb, the Democrat running for the House seat in Virginia, said. “People don’t realize the extent that race is still part of the conversation. When people say, ‘Why do you have to make it about race?’ America made it about race. What I’m doing is, I’m trying to lean into that conversation.”