How 2018 Was Still a Breakthrough Election for Black Candidates

I have no doubt that many observers entered the 2018 general election cycle hopeful that at least one African American candidate would have a breakthrough and win an unprecedented statewide office. At the start of the general election cycle, Democratic voters in three states (Florida, Georgia and Maryland) had nominated Black gubernatorial candidates. Blacks were nominated for lieutenant governor and attorney general in seven states. Democrats in Mississippi and Republicans in Michigan each nominated Blacks as their U.S. Senate candidates.

The election results may have proven to be disappointing, but there is reason to look at the 2018 outcome as a “glass half-full.” Yes, Blacks candidates failed to win those marquee state races for governor and U.S. Senate. However, Blacks made tremendous gains in this cycle — in both absolute and moral terms.

It was all but guaranteed that Illinois and New York would have Black attorneys general, as both the Democratic and Republican parties in those states nominated Black candidates. However, in addition to these historic victories, Blacks won the attorney general races in Minnesota and Nevada. In addition, four states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maryland) elected Black lieutenant governors, three of these states for the first time. And with a net gain of seven Black members of the House of Representatives, Blacks will have almost achieved proportional representation in the lower chamber of the 116th Congress.

It is easy to lose sight of the less publicized offices, but it is just as important that Blacks be elected attorney general, lieutenant governor, or even state legislator, city councilor and county commissioner, as it is that they be elected as governor, members of Congress or even president.

While the failure of Black candidates to win the top statewide offices may be disappointing, the truth is that those “losing” candidates laid the groundwork for Black candidates to be taken seriously in future elections. In the marquee races in the South in particular, Black nominees actually overperformed expectations. That is, when we consider the past performance of Democratic candidates running for the same offices in these Republican-dominated states, these candidates won more votes than previous Democratic candidates running for the same seats. This should not surprise anyone. While the general national mood no doubt contributed to voters being more interested in this election, these candidates also conducted robust field campaigns, campaigning in Black communities and specifically targeting Blacks for voter mobilization activities like voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. In doing so, they created a template for how to engage voters (particularly minority voters) that, if used regularly, will eventually pay off. The demographics of states like Florida and Georgia are changing rapidly. If Democratic candidates of any color continue to engage minority voters, who are predominantly Democratic and whose populations are growing, it will eventually reap dividends.

When we focus only on the marquee races, we may lose sight of the gains that are taking place at lower levels. Moreover, when we focus only on wins and losses, we ignore the ways that even the losing candidates make strides. This is, admittedly, difficult to do in politics, where all that seems to matter at the end of the day is whether candidates win or lose elections. However, students of African American politics have long known that there are often victories to be had in losing elections if they set up future wins. For instance, the late political scientist and strategist Ronald Walters was quite transparent when discussing the goals of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. He knew Jackson’s chances for winning the Democratic nomination were slim. However, he calculated that if Jackson ran a serious campaign, he could win enough delegates to be able to influence Democratic Party politics for a generation. He was right. Jackson’s second-place finish in the 1988 primaries gave him the authority to advocate for greater Black representation in Democratic Party leadership and the leverage to push the party away from using winner-take-all systems for awarding delegates in presidential primaries. Jackson may not have realized his dream of becoming president, but because of the rule changes sparked by his activism in 1988, Barack Obama was able to secure the Democratic nomination and eventually become president 20 years later.

We do not yet know the future trajectories of some of the losing Black candidates. By virtue of their youth and energy, I do not think that anyone would be surprised to see Stacey Abrams or Andrew Gillum (pictured) run for another high-profile office. But even if they do not run for office again, their near-wins expanded the boundaries of what is possible for Black candidates, even in adverse political terrains. While we should not ignore the ways that bigotry and voter suppression may have influenced the outcome of this election, the fact that Abrams, Gillum and Mike Espy won as many votes as they did in Republican states is a testament to their political skills and to the fact that they were more than worthy of their nominations. By outperforming traditional Democratic expectations in red states, these candidates demonstrated that Blacks can be just as competitive as other Democratic candidates. While they may face unique challenges because of race — or in Abrams’ case, because of race and gender — the strong showing of these candidates demonstrates that qualified Black candidates deserve an equal chance of running for any of the highest offices in America.

— Andra Gillespie is assistant professor of political science at Emory University, where she teaches courses in African American Politics, political participation and experimental methods. She is author of "The New Black Politician" and "Whose Black politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership."

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