By Amanda Terkel and Kevin Robillard, HUFFPOST
Those numbers could skyrocket following the November election. Six Black non-incumbent candidates won major party nominations for Senate seats. Victories for the five Democrats and one lone Republican would constitute a dramatic increase in representation in a body that’s been stubbornly white, wealthy and male for nearly all of its 200-plus years.
It’s unclear if the six nominations set a record, but Black political operatives, activists and candidates all agreed it’s without precedent in recent history.
“It’s certainly something I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” said Chris Scott, political director at Collective PAC, a group fighting to increase Black representation.
On the Democratic side, the path to diversification runs through the South, with Marquita Bradshaw in Tennessee, Mike Espy in Mississippi, Jamie Harrison in South Carolina, Adrian Perkins in Louisiana and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. On the Republican side, John James is running in Michigan. (And in New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the one Black senator up for reelection this year, is a heavy favorite to win.)
Black House members from the South make up nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus. But many of them hail from majority-minority districts, and Southern Black politicians still face significant skepticism about whether a Democrat, let alone a Black Democrat, can win statewide.
“The pundits are always chirping in people’s ears saying, ‘Oh man, a Democrat can’t win, especially a Black Democrat. And you throw on top, he’s a millennial.’ Of course they’re speaking into people’s ears. But the pundits and naysayers aren’t the ones determining elections,” said Perkins, 34, who would be the youngest member of the Senate if elected.
But there are more high-profile Black Senate candidates this election cycle than ever before. There’s no doubt that their races are tough, but they’re also considered more winnable than in past cycles. And there’s been significant frustration among some of the candidates and their supporters that national Democrats haven’t given them more money and resources.
“They’ve given a little something, but I’d call it a pittance,” Espy said of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “It’s nothing like what should be happening in a race like this.”
If Democrats are serious about diversifying the Senate, it may require more investment in these Southern states that are heavily conservative ― but also have some of the highest proportions of Black residents in the country.
Black candidates say the region is ripe for more investment. They point to changing demographics and a greater willingness for Black candidates to step up and not wait their turn ― inspired by people like former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
“This is a new South ― a new South that is bold, that is inclusive, that is diverse,” said Harrison. “What we are seeing now, and what we’re witnessing, is this emergence of leaders in this new South, in African American leaders who are taking a message that is not just relegated to the African American community, but a message of hope that I think can inspire all communities.”
If California Sen. Kamala Harris (D) ascends to the vice presidency, there could be only two Black senators in office next year unless one of these candidates breaks through. That would leave the Black community with little voice in a chamber of Congress set to debate crucial issues: police reform, gun violence, economic recovery from a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black Americans, D.C. statehood and potentially the first-ever nomination of a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure to move legislation to address these structural issues,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC. “And if you have a Senate that does not reflect the populace, it’s going to be a problem.”
‘You Can’t Ignore These Issues’
Espy, 66, also ran for the Senate in Mississippi in 2018, getting 46% of the vote ― good enough to outperform both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s presidential bids.
Race was an issue in the campaign. Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith faced blowback after she joked that she’d love to attend a “public hanging” ― in a state with a history of lynchings. News reports also found that she attended a “segregation academy” in the 1970s and has repeatedly defended Confederate supporters. Espy is again facing Hyde-Smith, who won that special election two years ago.
Back then, the Clarion-Ledger reported that Espy was largely avoiding talking about any controversial issues, including race, and said his campaign was “just keeping our head down.”
Not this time. Now, race is at the center of his campaign.
“It’s just a different time,” said Espy, who served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. “We’ve got George Floyd. He’s been murdered. Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. We have, in our face, cases of police misconduct and violations when you consider the issues of social justice. So a candidate for Senate living in these times, if you’re serious and really want to serve the people, you can’t ignore these issues.”
But there’s a second reason Espy is talking more about race. Last time, he said, he didn’t connect with young people and give them a reason to vote for him.
“They didn’t [come out and vote for me] because they didn’t know who I was. Here was this gray-headed 64-year-old guy. They couldn’t identify with me. They didn’t know my story,” he said.
Now, Espy said he talks about how he integrated his high school in 1968 as one of just 18 Black students among 800 white students. He had to fight every day, was called the N-word, and even had teachers cursing and spraying fire extinguishers at him. As a senior, he led a walkout to protest that the school wasn’t hiring Black teachers.
“I led the walkout, and because I led it, the superintendent docked my GPA two points for every day we were out. We were out three days. So my GPA was docked six points, and I’m trying to go to college. So when I tell these students in 2020 that, you know, they’re not the only ones that protested against racism and social inequity, they can identify with this.”
Espy has featured his own personal story, including many of these details, in some of his ads and videos.