Warnock win puts spotlight on Senate’s shortcomings
The Rev. Raphael Warnock joined an elite class of Black politicians when he upset incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Georgia this week. He will be the 11th African American to ever serve in the chamber.
His challenge, however, will be staying there.
Warnock’s victory Tuesday puts him in the Senate through 2022, meaning the Ebenezer Baptist Church senior pastor needs to gear up for another campaign to win a full six-year term in just 22 months.
Only four Black politicians have ever completed a full term in the Senate. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the nation’s first Black president, and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the soon-to-be first African American, Asian American and female vice president, aren’t among them.
Unlike the House, which grew its ranks of Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American members this year, the Senate has sorely lagged in racial diversity, despite the nation’s rapidly changing demographics.
There are a number of reasons for this. The barriers to entry are high, for starters. Party leaders often don’t see aspirants of color as viable candidates who can win, particularly in the South, and don’t invest in them early enough, according to interviews with a dozen Democrats, including several current and former lawmakers, candidates and campaign aides and advisers. Voter suppression tactics, they said, such as purged voter rolls, fewer polling locations and stringent voter ID laws, play a role as well, because they drastically narrow the pool of eligible voters.
Democrats said that in order for the Senate to diversify, the party apparatus must rethink its definition of viability, invest in candidates and infrastructure early — and give new candidates time to prove themselves as fundraisers before writing them off.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the campaign of John James, the Black Republican from Michigan who ran for Senate in 2018 and 2020, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
With Warnock incoming and Harris outgoing, the chamber will retain the same number of Black senators, three, while the amount of Asian American senators will dwindle from three to two.
There are five Latinos in the chamber with a sixth to come in Alex Padilla, the California secretary of state who will succeed Harris by appointment. But there are no Native Americans. And every Black senator will be a man, leaving the group of voters that most overwhelmingly supported the Democratic ticket — Black women — without any true representation in the Senate.
“This void, for me, in many ways, is devastating,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said. “Black women have elected so many people over the years — Black, people of color and non-Black. It’s time to be recognized as being a force to be reckoned with in this country. And we deserve to be in the Senate.”
While Democrats are excited about what they can accomplish over the next two years with complete control of Washington, it’s not lost on Black women that on Inauguration Day, they’ll lose the one person in the 100-member chamber who looks like them.
“[Tuesday’s] race in Georgia [was] to fight for the majority of the Senate that we will not be in,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national network of women of color. “Relying on Black women to deliver to Democrats a majority of the Senate governing power, and we won’t be in the Senate. The cruel irony of this.”
The Democratic sweep of Georgia’s Senate seats hands the party control of the chamber, demoting Mitch McConnell to minority leader in a 50-50 Senate with Harris as the tiebreaker.
But even as Black women celebrate Warnock’s historic win, they lament that they’ll be missing a critical voice in the Senate.
Harris, a former prosecutor and California attorney general, gained prominence grilling President Donald Trump’s nominees from her perch on the Judiciary Committee, but she also introduced legislation that would impact Black women on issues like the Black maternal mortality crisis and uterine fibroids.
“Who would have done that,” asked Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, “besides a Black woman?
‘Bill Clinton saved me’
Even when candidates of color do make it to the Senate, they don’t last for very long.
Hiram Revels (R-Miss.) and Blanche Bruce (R-Miss.), the nation’s first two Black senators, were elected at a time when state legislatures chose their senators. The Mississippi legislature voted Revels to fill the final year of a seat that had been vacant since the Civil War and later sent Bruce to the chamber for a full term.
Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), the first Black senator elected by the statewide popular vote, served two terms but lost reelection for a third. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the first Black female senator, lost reelection after her first term.
Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.) were appointed placeholders who didn’t seek a full term. Obama left early to become president, and Harris similarly won’t complete her term because she was elected vice president in November, two years before her term ends.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have served since 2013. Booker was reelected last fall, while Scott’s term is up in 2022.
Black Republican senators have had better luck holding onto their seats than Democrats have had. Brooke of Massachusetts served for 12 years; Scott of South Carolina is currently the most senior Black senator.
For senators of color, when it comes to longevity, it helps to represent a state with a large nonwhite population, such as Hawaii and New Mexico.
Moseley Braun stressed that more diversity should be a priority for both parties. Republicans have only three Black members in Congress: Scott and freshman Reps. Byron Donalds of Florida and Burgess Owens of Utah. But an overwhelming majority of Black voters are more aligned with the Democratic Party than the GOP. Black Democrats will outnumber Black Republicans in Congress by 56 members once Warnock is seated.
“When I was in the Senate, I was the only Black senator period, of any gender,” Moseley Braun said in an interview. “The Senate is a statewide office, and it requires so much money and party support to get there. I had to get elected on my own because the party was not forthcoming to help me.” Bill Clinton ended up stumping for Moseley Braun because he wanted to win Illinois, she said.
“Bill Clinton,” she added, “saved me in my election.”
The Senate’s only net gains in racial diversity from the 2020 cycle come from the appointment of Padilla in California and the election of former Rep. Ben Ray Lujan in New Mexico.
“The barriers of entry are very high. It’s a system of elitism in many ways and it costs a lot of money,” said Nathalie Rayes, president and CEO of Latino Victory. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’ve taken good steps this cycle.”
Both chambers have made “significant strides” in terms of diversity among members and staff since Sen. Bob Menendez’s first term in the House nearly 20 years ago, he said.
“For some time, it was pretty lonely to be Latino in the Senate, but this year we will have a record six Latino senators,” Menendez said in an emailed statement to POLITICO. “But we still have much more work to do to ensure that our body is fully representative of America’s diversity.”
Bel Leong-Hong, the Democratic National Committee’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus chair, said the party fielded 10 to 12 AAPI congressional candidates but none for the Senate.
“We need a pipeline of congressional members that are willing to step up to the Senate, or we need to find good candidates that are willing to run for the Senate as well,” she said.
The House and Senate, of course, are two very different legislative bodies. Congressional candidates in 435 districts run for two-year terms in the lower chamber, where majority rules, while each state elects two senators with staggered six-year terms to the upper chamber, where the majority party traditionally has to work with the minority party to reach a 60-vote threshold.
A congressional campaign also costs just a fraction of what competitive Senate candidates raise and spend. In the past cycle alone, Jaime Harrison of South Carolina raised $133 million, Warnock raised $125 million and Mike Espy of Mississippi raised $12 million. (Espy and Harrison did not respond to requests for comment.)
Fundraising, however, is often cited as a barrier, particularly for women and candidates of color. Marquita Bradshaw, a Black environmental activist, was the only Black woman to win a Senate primary this cycle. She won Tennessee’s Democratic Senate primary despite raising just $22,000. In an interview, Bradshaw said she could’ve been the lone Black woman in the Senate if the party supported her and provided critical resources.
“Here I am, a working-class Black woman that’s making less than $15 an hour, running a volunteer network campaign statewide to secure a U.S. Senate seat, which is really unheard of,” Bradshaw said.
“When you look at the politics and the identity of who usually gets in the U.S. Senate, it’s usually very wealthy white men because of the types of resources it takes to run a statewide campaign.”
Since losing her under-resourced bid by 800,000 votes, Bradshaw launched a nonprofit group called Sowing Justice to bring people into the political process in non-election years with the aim of turning them into high-information voters. She said she’s optimistic about future prospects. The Democratic path to victory in Tennessee lies in turning out the huge portion of residents who are either registered but don’t vote, or are voting age but don’t register, she said. And the number of those would-be voters outpaces the number of registered Republicans and Democrats combined.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, endorsed a record number of racially diverse candidates this cycle, including Warnock, Lujan, Harrison, Espy, Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins in Louisiana and Paulette Jordan in Idaho.
“That said, the committee believes there is certainly more work that we all need to do to continue endorsing and electing diverse candidates to the Senate,” the DSCC said in a statement.
The party should also assist new candidates by helping to shape their staff, messaging and strategy because first-time candidates don’t know what they don’t know, Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said.
“It’s one thing to recruit, and it’s one thing to have candidates, but if you don’t invest in them and prepare them for what the campaign looks like, it really don’t matter,” said Seawright, who is based in South Carolina.
“I also think we have to stop looking for what the people in D.C. would describe as a traditional good candidate,” he continued, “and start going to these communities and figuring out what the community would describe as a good candidate because it is going to be communities that have to come out and vote for these folks.”
Quentin James, founder and president of Collective PAC, said part of the reason Black Democrats have struggled to win competitive Senate races is because support from the party often comes too late to be effective. Democrats “must continue to prioritize funding Black candidates everywhere and funding them early,” he said.
‘Stacey Abrams ran that playbook’
A growing number of Democrats also believe the party should adopt former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams’ strategy of prioritizing and funding field organizing to activate marginalized voters who are often ignored. That includes securing early votes and focusing on voters of color as the key to building multiracial coalitions as opposed to prioritizing white moderates.
Abrams and other organizers are widely credited for flipping Georgia blue in November, paving the way for Warnock and Jon Ossoff to win Tuesday’s runoffs.
“Two Senate seats [were] at play for the very fact that Stacey Abrams and the whole network of organizers ran that playbook year after year,” Allison said. “It’s time that the Democrats fund and prioritize this strategy.”
Guy King, who served as communications director for Harrison’s campaign, said investment in infrastructure is critical for Black candidates to be successful. He pointed to Harrison’s Dirt Road PAC in South Carolina as well as the work Abrams has been doing as examples of what needs to happen going forward.
“We see what Stacey did in Georgia,” said King, now vice president for DKC, a public relations firm based in New York. “Georgia is a state that so many people thought was unattainable for Democrats. It started with that infrastructure.”
Many Black women believe California Gov. Gavin Newsom erred in elevating Padilla over a Black woman like Lee and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), particularly because despite the historic nature of the appointment, it adds another Latino to the Senate at the expense of what would’ve been the only Black woman.
On the flip side, “Diversity is about Hispanic representation, too,” Moseley Braun said. “They have more of a population in California than even Black people do.”
Still, Black women in California say they’re hopeful that Newsom would appoint a Black woman if rumors are true and Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires early. Feinstein, 87, has already given up her top slot on the Judiciary Committee, but her Senate term doesn’t end until 2024.
Lee praised Feinstein as a barrier-breaking icon who deserves to decide her future on her own terms.
“Of course if there is a vacancy, I would be honored to be either appointed or run for it,” she said. “But I can tell you one thing: That’s not my focus right now because we have to really make sure that a Black woman somewhere in the United States where they can either be appointed or run gets to the Senate. But Sen. Feinstein will make her own decision.”
Noting that a record number of Black women have run for and won office at every level in recent years, Shropshire called it “a slap in the face” to have no Black female representation in the chamber anymore.
“To not have a Black woman’s voice reflected in the policy decisions coming out of the Senate or in negotiating the kinds of policy decisions that are going to be made is frankly a travesty,” she said. “It makes no sense in this moment.”
Maya King contributed to this report.