Women of Color Have Always Led
Woman holding sign during the March for Racial Justice in Washington, DC, on September 30, 2017. Photo credit: Miki Jourdan / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Between her full-time job as a caretaker for a special needs adult, attending to her mother who was battling kidney failure, raising her son, and hemming pants to make ends meet, Marquita Bradshaw ran for a seat in the US Senate. 

“I would start work as early as 5 o’clock and be finished by 2 p.m., and then work on my campaign from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m., and then full-time on the weekends,” said Bradshaw, who ran in 2020 to replace retiring US Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) in Tennessee. “I was a full-time candidate and a full-time working mom.”

Hoping to become just the third Black woman in history to be elected to the US Senate and the first Black woman to represent Tennessee on Capitol Hill, Bradshaw was one of 13 Black women across the country who ran for Senate in 2020. “I was told from the beginning that I had no chance in hell, that I did not belong in the race,” Bradshaw told WhoWhatWhy

But she beat the odds and her opponent, James Mackler, who was backed by US Senate Democrats, in the primary — despite having raised less than $25,000 compared to Mackler’s $2.5 million. The win made Bradshaw, an environmental justice activist, the only Black woman to advance past the primaries in 2020, though she lost in the general election to Republican Bill Hagerty.

Even though Black women were belatedly hailed in 2020 as the backbone of the Democratic Party, the historic election of Kamala Harris as vice president left the Senate without a Black woman. Harris was only the second. Twenty-five years before her, Carol Moseley Braun became the first African American woman ever elected to the US Senate. Of the Democratic women who were elected to the Senate in 1992 — deemed the year of the woman — Moseley Braun was the only one to lose reelection six years later.

“The fact that the Senate, which is really one of the most auspicious legislative bodies in the country, is absent a Black woman’s voice is tragic,” said Stefanie Brown James, co-founder and executive director of The Collective PAC, a political action committee that supports Black candidates. “I think that we should view it as disgraceful.”

Like many voters, Bradshaw had looked at the pool of candidates seeking Alexander’s vacant Senate seat hoping to find someone whose values and experience she could relate to. “I was like, ‘So who represents someone that makes less than $15 an hour, someone who is not food secure all year long, someone who is not energy secure all year long, someone who has had to go through the foreclosure process but beat it off through bankruptcy, and understands the struggle of working people, who is speaking about those issues?’” she recalls thinking. Unsatisfied by what she found, she decided to run. 

Senate, candidate, Marquita Bradshaw

Democratic candidate for US Senate Marquita Bradshaw at her headquarters in Chattanooga, TN, in October 2020. Photo credit: Lawrence G. Miller / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

From fundraising difficulties to meager institutional support, Bradshaw’s challenges underscore the roadblocks Black women face when attempting to run for the US Senate. 

While fundraising is a major factor that works against Black women, scholars say their ultimate barrier to political office stems from the legacy of systemic oppression and holdovers from slavery. 

While Senate races are increasingly expensive, candidates who have the means are able to borrow money to finance their campaigns until they can secure campaign donations. 

“Black women tend to not have the network or the net worth to be able to compete if you’re looking at the dollar value of what you can personally invest in your campaign,” said Erica Smith, who ran for US Senate in North Carolina. 

Her opponent in the Democratic primary, Cal Cunningham, started his 2020 race with a $200,000 loan — a sum Smith, a Black woman, did not have.

“Some white candidates benefit from generational wealth from times when Black women and Black men were not allowed to own property,” Smith told WhoWhatWhy. “We were property!” 

The legacy of discrimination and unequal treatment in housing, education, and labor markets has kept African Americans on the losing end of the wealth gap for generations. Black women in particular have the most student loan debt compared to all other groups, for instance, and make an average of 61 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

Research shows that such inequalities can have an impact on their pursuit of political office. A recent study that analyzed the average amount of money raised by candidates for the US House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections found that Black women received the least amount of financial support compared to other candidates. 

On average, Black women running for Congress in 2018 raised just under $934,000, compared to white women, who raised an average of over $2 million, Black men, with over $1.1 million, and white men, with close to $1.7 million, the study found. 

Largely driven by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the DSCC was particularly aggressive in the 2020 cycles, endorsing 13 candidates before the primaries — none of whom were Black women. 

That number does not include independent expenditures, which play a significant role in federal political campaigns, especially in Senate races. Together, super PACs and other organizations supporting and opposing candidates spent over $1.5 billion on 2020 Senate elections alone. But Black women rarely benefit from those considerable donations. 

“Current established donors do not give to Black women at the rates they give to white women and white men,” said Brown James. “They are not willing to open up their Rolodexes to their other wealthy friends the way they do for white men and white women.” 

Another factor might be the disparity among deep-pocketed donors. Among wealthy individual contributors with a net worth over $1 million, more than 8.1 milion are white, compared to fewer than 186,000 who are African American, according to the Donors of Color Network

But chief among the issues, progressive candidates and experts argue, is the tendency of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Senate’s campaign arm which spends millions to elect Democratic senators, to snub grassroots campaigns. 

A DSCC endorsement, or lack thereof, can make or break a Senate campaign, especially before the primaries. It often also signals to other big donors which candidate is worth investing in. 

“It’s almost like they have to get permission from someone who they deem credible to say, ‘All right, now we’ll go ahead and support this candidate,’” Brown James said.  

Largely driven by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the DSCC was particularly aggressive in the 2020 elections, endorsing 13 candidates before the primaries — none of whom were Black women. 

“With the National Party sort of pre-determining who they were going to support, it made it much more difficult to raise contributions for [my] race,” Deborah Jackson told WhoWhatWhy. Jackson, a Black woman, lost in one of Georgia’s 2020 Senate special elections. She came in fourth behind fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republicans Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins. Warnock went on to become the first Black senator from the state.

With his victory in a runoff in January, Warnock became only the third Black senator to currently hold office, joining Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC). Among the 1,994 senators elected since the first Senate convened in 1789, only 11 have been African American (nine men and two women).

The DSCC tends to endorse centrist candidates with some military background and a proven ability to raise money, said Jim Manley, a 21-year veteran of Capitol Hill who served as an aide to Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid.

But Smith, along with many other progressives, thinks the DSCC’s criteria for electability are skewed. In her race, the DSCC endorsed her opponent before the primaries, despite national polls showing her in the lead — a move that was fatal for her campaign. 

“Ultimately our goal is to win, and we will do whatever it takes to win. But as to what strategy we’ll pursue, time will tell,” Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the new chair of the DSCC, told Politico about the 2022 elections. 

While research on Black women in politics is limited — a problem Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery, professor and chair of the department of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, is working to solve — researchers have found that the intersectionality of race and gender plays a major role in the perceived electability of Black women to higher political office. 

Part of the challenge that Black women have to manage, Jordan-Zachery said, are the “scripts” that are written on Black women’s bodies. In other words, the way people read Black women. 

“Europeans scripted Black women’s bodies as different, highly sexual, and the ‘other,’” Jordan-Zachery argues. Still, centuries later, “Blackness relative to Whiteness is often viewed as ‘other,’ as negative, and as subhuman.”

In turn, she argues, “The script ascribed to these women’s bodies influences how they are seen and responded to by the larger community.”

“There is this unfortunate misconception that as a Black candidate, let alone a Black woman, that you’re not able to speak to the interests of the white working class when, in reality, Black people are able to speak to issues that are of importance to everyone,” Brown James said. “Who better than a Black woman who oftentimes disproportionately is impacted by these issues to represent the best interests of those in her state?” 

Black Women Matter

Protester taking part in the March for Racial Justice in Washington, DC, on September 30, 2017. Photo credit: Miki Jourdan / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another underlying issue relates to class, according to Jordan-Zachery. That’s because of the embedded assumption that wealthy individuals, especially those who are white and male, can govern for all people, regardless of identity.

“It is a big decision for [Black] women to run, especially if they’re going into a situation where they’re already going to be considered the underdogs anyways,” Brown James said. “Oftentimes, [they] have to be 10 times better than everybody else.” 

This can be a latent barrier for some Black women considering statewide political office, Jordan-Zachery suggests. “Sometimes when we perceive spaces as being harmful to us, we might not necessarily want to walk in.”

Yet, “When you look at the changing dynamics and the election cycles over the past decade, we are approaching what we call a new American majority that is more representative, that is geographically and demographically much different than that cookie-cutter version of what they felt promotes electability,” Smith said.

Bradshaw’s upset win in the Tennessee primaries over her DSCC-backed opponent was seen by many as proof that Black women are viable candidates who are able to win and should be given more support. 

“I showed what was possible by creating a relational grassroots campaign,” Bradshaw said. “It gives me hope for the future, because I know that with a little bit more money, and the same type of elbow grease, Black women can not only be in the US Senate, but we can have more [candidates] that represent the population of Black women.” 

Solutions 

While Black women have been praised for helping Joe Biden flip historically red states and the Democrats to narrowly win Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, the party needs to put its money where its mouth is, according to Brown James. “Black women are important as candidates and not just as voters to get white people in office,” she said.

To do so, parties need to be more open to Black women candidates, Jackson said. “I think there needs to be a better process for folks who may be interested in pursuing those offices to be able to reach out and get support, and be able to make the case as to why they should be given serious consideration.” 

Black Women Are Seizing the Political Stage

Brown James said that electing a Black woman to the Senate is The Collective PAC’s No. 1 priority going into 2022. 

The news that Republican senators in three swing states are retiring — Sens. Richard Burr (NC), Pat Toomey (PA), and Rob Portman (OH) — is expected to attract a slew of candidates, including some Black women. 

In Ohio, for instance, where Democrats hope to take over Portman’s seat, Emilia Sykes, Ohio’s state House minority leader, is a potential candidate who has the ability to run statewide, according to Brown James. 

In North Carolina, the race for Burr’s open seat is likely to be contentious as Democrats try to expand their Senate majority. 

Smith, who announced that she is running again in 2022, said she has already reached out to the DSCC and hopes they will give her more support this time around. 

Cheri Beasley, the former North Carolina chief justice who narrowly lost her state Supreme Court seat in 2020, is also considering running, Politico reported. Both could be vying to become their state’s first Black senator. 

While organizations like Higher Heights, VoteRunLead, and The Collective PAC are supporting Black women candidates by offering training, guidance, and fundraising, progressives argue that the Democratic establishment must provide more resources and early support.  

They need to “make sure that whoever comes out of the primary gets the full support of the Democratic Party and the Democratic political organizations in order to have true diversity and true wins for the democratic process,” said Bradshaw, who said she did not receive financial support from the Democratic Party, even after winning the primary.

“Congress should establish a more regular stream of funding for elections via the Election Assistance Commission so states and localities do not need to rely on private philanthropy and corporations for election costs in the future,” wrote Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee. 

Bakari Sellers, former South Carolina state senator and CNN commentator, told the Morning Consult he hopes Democrats in Washington stay out of North Carolina and other Democratic primaries in 2022, and avoid seeking candidates who “check every single box.” “At this point, don’t spend time picking and choosing candidates,” he said. “Spend time cultivating and building a base so that whichever one of these dynamic candidates wins, we can win a general election.”

Progressives have also been pushing for campaign finance laws that would level the playing field. 

“It’s a system that is stacked against representative democracy, and it needs to be called out, and we need to have a new way of moving forward in supporting the base of this party if we’re ever going to have a fair shot at more representation in the Senate,” said Smith.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Senate and US Senate / Wikimedia.

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