This year, 16 Black candidates — 13 Democrats and three Republicans — are major-party nominees. for either U.S. Senator or Governor., challenging long-held attitudes about whether Black candidates can be competitive in statewide races.
A record number of Black men and women are running for U.S. Senate and governor this fall, with the potential to increase diversity in the nation’s top elected offices, which are still overwhelmingly held by White men.
Since Reconstruction, voters have elected just seven Black senators and two Black governors. This year, 16 Black candidates — 13 Democrats and three Republicans — are major-party nominees. While many of them face tough odds, some have posted strong poll numbers and fundraising totals, waging credible campaigns that challenge long-held attitudes about whether Black candidates can be competitive in statewide races.
Rep. Val Demings is the Democratic nominee for Florida senator against current Sen. Marco Rubio. She has homed in on abortion and at a recent campaign stop drew a subtle comparison between abortion restrictions and slavery.
Two of the three current Black members of the U.S. Senate are vying to hold their seats: Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia.
The other Black member of the Senate, Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, is not up for election. There were four Black members of the Senate until Vice President Kamala Harris attained her current position.
Mandela Barnes, a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Wisconsin, is in one of the closest races. Like former President Obama, he and many of the candidates use their personal experiences to appeal to voters. He recounts his upbringing in inner-city Milwaukee and compares the challenges his working-class parents faced to the economic strains American families continue to face.
Barnes has been lieutenant governor of Wisconsin since 2019.
“The members of the Senate, they don’t reflect America,” Barnes, who is running against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, told supporters at a recent campaign event in suburban Milwaukee. “Most senators don’t live in the American experience. They haven’t dealt with the challenges a majority of Americans deal with.”
The Johnson campaign has already aired an ad that attempts to link Barnes to the policies of Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), three women of color often characterized as “radical” by conservative politicians and activists. The ad includes a dark, unflattering photograph of Barnes and accuses him of being “dangerously liberal on crime.”
Demings and Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina, locked down early support from Democratic Party leaders and had no serious opposition.
Ex-NFL player Herschel Walker, a University of Georgia running back who was awarded the 1982 Heisman Trophy, won the Republican nomination for Senate in Georgia with the backing of former president Donald Trump.
Many of the Black statewide candidates face considerable challenges: Most of the Democratic candidates are running in red or Republican-leaning states; one of the three Black Republican candidates, Joe Pinion, is running against Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D) in heavily Democratic New York.
Pinion notes he was raised in Yonkers by a single mother who was a nurse and former nonprofit executive. Pinion, who launched his campaign on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, said his upbringing is one reason he has embraced such policies as fighting child poverty and building more neighborhood health clinics.
“These are issues that are very much aligned with my personal upbringing,” said Pinion, adding that he’s the first Black Senate nominee from either major party in New York history. “My desire to see conservative principles brought to fruition is rooted in my experiences as a Black man in America,” he said.
Charles E. Jones, a retired professor and researcher of African-American politics, race and public policy at the University of Cincinnati, is not so sure. In 2006, as a professor at Georgia State University, Jones co-authored a study with Judson L. Jeffries, a professor at Ohio State University, that found “Whites are reluctant to vote for Black candidates, especially Black high-profile state candidates.”
Jones believes that “race is still very salient in society” and continues to be a barrier for Black candidates. “The numbers do speak for themselves. You still have a rarity of Black members in the U.S. Senate and the governor’s house.”
In Maryland, Wes Moore, a 43-year-old former nonprofit executive, is thought to be positioned to become the first Black governor of Maryland.
Moore, who has never held elected office, is facing Republican Dan Cox, a state delegate who has aligned himself with Trump. Over the summer, Moore outraised Cox by nearly 10 to 1 — $1.8 million to $195,000.
But eight years ago, Maryland Republican Larry Hogan shocked political observers by defeating Anthony G. Brown, who is Black and at the time was lieutenant governor, in that traditionally Democratic-leaning state. Maryland, where African Americans make up 31% of the population, has never elected a Black governor or U.S. senator. In 2018, Hogan defeated another Black candidate, Ben Jealous, a former national president of the NAACP. Brown is on the general election ballot this year as the Democratic nominee for attorney general.