Raphael Warnock’s Senate victory in Georgia has opened the floodgates to a surge of African American Senate candidates, raising the prospect that the 2022 midterm elections could dramatically alter the face of a chamber that is currently 89 percent white.
While it’s too early in the election cycle to know exactly how many Black candidates will run for the Senate, a growing number have either launched formal bids or are seriously considering running in at least a half-dozen states. Many are state legislators or local elected officials who might have been dissuaded from running in the past, or viewed a statewide victory as implausible.
Fueling the burst is an unusually fluid Senate map that already features five open seat races. But prospective candidates and political strategists point to other catalytic factors — foremost among them, Warnock’s upset victory in January in a red, Deep South state that had never elected an African American to the Senate.
“I think this idea that Black candidates can’t win statewide and young candidates can’t win statewide in difficult races was just disproven in Georgia,” said Malcolm Kenyatta, a 30-year-old Black state representative who is running in Pennsylvania. “We have the Senate majority because a young guy and a Black guy helped us take the two seats we needed.”
Warnock is more than just an inspiration for some of these candidates — he’s also served as a mentor and a clearinghouse of information on running for the Senate. The senator confirmed that he has spoken with several prospective African American congressional candidates about potential bids, saying the chamber “does not suffer from an overwhelming amount of diversity.”
“If my story is inspiring others to get involved in the process, then that’s a good thing,” he told POLITICO. “I have heard that there are some folks who have not thought about running for Congress who are thinking about it now. It’s important to have great candidates and a diverse pool all the way down the ticket.”
Other prominent Black elected officials and former statewide candidates are also engaging in informal networking to shape the 2022 landscape and beyond, along with Black PACs and political strategists.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) said Black lawmakers have a special responsibility in recruiting Black candidates to find those who can handle “the public service aspects, the policy issues, but also candidates who can raise money, articulate a message — who can develop an organization over time.”
“You’ve got to develop a bench of candidates who are committed to this work and have a vision for what this work entails,” said Brown, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Maryland in 2014.
Nearly all of the emerging candidates are Democrats, though Donald Trump has publicly urged former football star Herschel Walker — an outspoken supporter of the former president — to challenge Warnock.
In North Carolina, where former state Sen. Erica Smith is running for the Senate a second time, two other Black women are looking closely at the race — former astronaut Joan Higginbotham and former chief state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley.
In Ohio, state Rep. Emilia Sykes and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce are being floated as contenders. In Kentucky, activist and former state Rep. Charles Booker has been laying the groundwork for a challenge to Sen. Rand Paul after coming within a few percentage points of defeating Amy McGrath in the 2020 Democratic Senate primary. After Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt announced Monday that he would not seek another term, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who is Black, said he would consider a campaign for his seat.
“I think it’s going to be the year of the Black candidate, I really do,” said Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, an African American politician who lost a Senate bid last year. “I’ve talked to a number of folks across the country who are thinking about [running], and I think they can really bring some energy to many of these races.”
For many of the Black candidates, the path to the Senate is steep. Neither Ohio, Pennsylvania nor North Carolina has ever elected a Black senator or governor, and Pennsylvania only elevated its first Black statewide row officer this year — Republican Auditor General Timothy DeFoor.
“Here in Pennsylvania, on the Democratic side, we have never nominated a Black governor or Senate or even in the row office,” said Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), who unsuccessfully ran for governor and lieutenant governor in the 1980s and 1990s. When he campaigned statewide, “there was not a familiarity of a constituency voting for a Black person.”
But, he added, a lot has changed since then: Though it is still overwhelmingly white, Pennsylvania has become more diverse, and there are more networks available to help Black candidates, he said.
In one sign of the state’s changing landscape, there are likely to be two Black candidates seeking the Democratic Senate nomination — Kenyatta and Sharif Street, a Philadelphia state senator who is on the verge of launching a Senate exploratory committee.
Street and Kenyatta are seeking to appeal to a broad swath of voters by talking about kitchen-table issues. In a clear attempt to shore up support in other parts of the state, they’ve also spent time campaigning for other candidates across the commonwealth.
“We can’t expect people to magically decide that they’re going to love big-city liberal politics. What we have to do is explain to voters why the values that you represent empower their lives,” said Street, who said he has spoken with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) about what it’s like to run for Senate as an African American candidate. “The same policies that help poor and working-class urban people in Philly and Pittsburgh and Allentown help rural and poor white folks in other parts of the state. And I think it’s incumbent upon as candidates to be able to articulate that message.”
Still, breaking barriers in Pennsylvania is a different endeavor than it is in Georgia, where Warnock won his historic victory — one-third of Georgia residents are Black, compared to only 11 percent in Pennsylvania.
Another challenge for Kenyatta, who launched his bid with the backing of the powerful American Federation of Teachers and the progressive group Working Families Party, and Street: As Black liberal candidates from North Philadelphia, they could cannibalize some of each other’s votes in a primary.
In North Carolina, Smith pointed to questions about so-called electability, more often ascribed to Black contenders, as a barrier to entry for Black women running for office in the South.
“We’ve got to stop talking about Black women as the backbone of the Democratic Party, and instead make them the face of the party,” Smith said. “I mean, we vote 98 percent Democrat. We’ve got to look at that loyal voting bloc, and start supporting them at all levels in leadership.”
Harrison acknowledged that Black candidates have struggled to gain traction in the past in part due to a lack of party support — a record he said “has not always been great.” But he contends that “things have changed, things have gotten better.”
“Raphael and I did get tremendous support from the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee],” Harrison said. “I think these organizations are also seeing, from the [Democratic Governors Association] to the DSCC, that these campaigns run by Black candidates bring a type of energy and grassroots energy that some other campaigns just don’t bring … and I think that’s something that the party has to tap into.”
For their part, staff at the DSCC said the group is maintaining a wait-and-see approach before weighing in on which candidates it will support this early in the cycle. That could cause tension with Black candidates, who have said in the past that the party has been late to back them in statewide races.
DSCC leaders point to their supporting Warnock in the primary as proof positive of the committee’s investment in candidates of color in regions like the Deep South. The committee, which recruited Warnock to run in a special election field that featured more than 20 other candidates, endorsed him the day after he launched his campaign in January 2020.
“We’re excited about the interest in the cycle ahead and look forward to helping elect more diverse candidates to the Senate,” said Jessica Knight Henry, deputy executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer of the DSCC, in a statement.
During a roundtable with reporters last Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also expressed a commitment to pushing more Black candidates to run: “Georgia taught us something. We should be winning with African American candidates in the South … the only way we’re going to keep a strong majority is by encouraging candidates of color in the South and in the West, both Black and Latinx.”
Black PACs, political strategists and former candidates have also begun laying the groundwork to champion African American candidates. Higher Heights president Glynda Carr said her organization plans to partner with the Collective PAC and Congressional Black Caucus PAC to run Black candidates for state and national office in 2022 and 2024. A number of Black candidates — including Kenyatta, Beasley and Smith — are on an informal list of candidates the organization would throw its support behind in 2022.
“Frankly, there shouldn’t have been any ‘just ones’ in the U.S. Senate,” Carr said. “We have lessened some of the main barriers and institutional obstacles, but it was very clear they still exist.”
Quentin James, president of the Collective PAC, sees great promise in what he views as a wealth of prospects.
“We have a lot of momentum. Black voters do, Black candidates do and organizations like ourselves,” said James. “We feel like the winds are at our back.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.