Right now, there are two African Americans serving in the Senate—Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina. And while that state is unlikely to send another black conservative to Congress this year, there is a good chance that it elects a black Republican to statewide office. Here’s more, from The State:
A record seven African-American candidates are running for statewide office in 2014. Some could be eliminated in June’s primary elections, but it appears at least three black candidates will make it to November’s general election. (That would be one more than in 2002, when two black candidates – both Democrats – ran statewide and lost).
South Carolina also is assured to elect its first African-American candidate in a statewide race since Reconstruction in one U.S. Senate race, where all three of the announced candidates are black.
It’s also worth noting that, in Oklahoma, there’s a decent chance voters will elect a black Republican to replace Tom Coburn in the Senate. To wit, state House Speaker T.W. Shannon has announced his bid for the seat, and is poised to run a competitive campaign, given his ties to former representative J.C. Watts—who is still popular with Republicans in the state—as well as his high profile among Tea Party activists nationwide.
That Republicans are pushing African Americans to statewide office isn’t as unusual as it sounds, nor does it require a cynical explanation. Yes, at all levels, Democrats hold a near-monopoly on African American voters, and field the majority of black lawmakers at the district level. But or a variety of reasons, all tied to racial inequality and the unique situation of African Americans, black Republicans are more likely than black Democrats to win higher, statewide office. Or, put another way, I think we'll see more Scotts before we see more Bookers.
I wrote about this at length a few years ago, but in short, if you are a black lawmaker in the House, or the black mayor of a city—the kinds of people who tend to run for statewide office, in other words—odds are overwhelming that you serve a “majority-minority” constituency in a heavily Democratic area. This leads to a few things: First—even if you live in a largely liberal state—you’re considerably to the left of the median voter in your state. Think John Lewis in Georgia, or Bobby Scott in Virginia for examples of this.
Second, you’re likely to lead or represent a low-income area, which makes it harder to raise money for a statewide bid, on account of a smaller fundraising base. And finally, most majority-minority districts, or cities, are located in larger states, where—by definition—there’s more competition for statewide office.
Either one of these alone is surmountable for a skilled and ambitious politician. But together, they present a huge barrier to advancement for African American lawmakers who are looking to statewide office. Put another way, try to imagine Barack Obama’s political trajectory had he won his challenge to Bobby Rush, and entered Congress as the representative of a largely-black House district.
Do the limits of his position put a ceiling on his political aspirations? Is he able to build the fundraising networks and cross-racial support that he had—in real life—as the representative for a more diverse state senate district? Or is he limited to climbing the ranks of Chicago politics, closed off from national office? Obama is something of a sui generis figure, yes, but I have my doubts.
Insofar that they exist, black Republican lawmakers don’t have these problems. Most likely, they’re representing middle-class to affluent white constituencies, placing them closer to the median voter, statewide, and giving them a healthy base for fundraising. And, judging from Scott in South Carolina, Shannon in Oklahoma, and Mia Love in Utah—who is likely to win her bid for a House seat this year—they seem to emerge in small, highly partisan states where the pool of candidates isn’t as deep, and inter-party competition is less fierce.
Simply put, if you’re an African American who wants to win statewide office, you’re much better off in the GOP than the Democratic Party. And if I had to bet, I’d say that—insofar that we see more black governors, lieutenant governors, and senators—they’re most likely to be Republicans.