Black Women Candidates Running in 2018 Face More Obstacles, Political Experts Say

Just months ago, Democrats thanked black women for voting in high numbers to block accused sexual predator Roy Moore from winning an Alabama Senate seat. But now, black women running for the first time in 2018 say they’re facing systematic obstacles endemic to a political system that wasn’t built for them.

As many of these women enter competitive Democratic primaries, some have even found themselves at war with the very party that, for decades, has relied on their political engagement to win elections.

“Black people are seen as workhorses,” Quentin James, executive director of Collective PAC, an organization that recruits, trains and funds black candidates, told Newsweek. “The party thinks of them when they’re trying to get out the black vote, but black candidates running are still an afterthought.”

This blind spot became all the more obvious, James said, when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released its list of Red to Blue program candidates in February. Of the two dozen names, not one of them belonged to a black candidate. It wasn’t until James and his colleagues wrote a letter to the committee asking why it wasn’t supporting any black campaigns that the DCCC added two black candidates to the list—Lauren Underwood and Colin Allred, Obama administration alums who won their respective primaries last month.

“We are proud to have a diverse Red to Blue program and to be working with a historic number of women and diverse candidates across our targeted battlefield, and we will continue to build on that important work as we fight to take back the House,” Kamau Marshall, the DCCC’s African American Media director, told Newsweek in a statement.

The DCCC’s stamp of approval is crucial for first-time candidates, who already start out at a disadvantage in at least two areas: name recognition and fundraising. The latter problem is particularly acute for black women. A recent report from the Arena, a progressive group that trains and supports female candidates, found that black women incumbents can expect to raise significantly less than their white female counterparts. Fundraising is an even bigger obstacle for first-time candidates.

At Collective PAC, James is trying to work with the DCCC to figure out how the committee might come to evaluate candidates on a more qualitative, rather than quantitative, basis. This approach will hopefully help the DCCC identify more promising black candidates, James said.

“To have a metric that’s solely based on fundraising, without taking into account any racial disparities, poses a real challenge,” James said.

The DCCC has been receptive to taking a more holistic approach to evaluating candidates’ viability, but it’ll take time to see real change, according to James. “We’ve been able to show them it’s a problem,” he said. “But are we going to be able to change all of this in the 2018 cycle? No.”

What will take longer still, some say, is expanding the limits of Americans’ political imagination—perhaps the most basic problem black women running for office face.

In New Jersey, House candidates Tamara Harris and Tanzie Youngblood, first-timers running in historically red districts, have found this to be the one of the most stubborn obstacles in their path to victory.

“People don’t have the vision to say, ‘Hey, you can excite this base that doesn’t look like you,’” Harris, who lost the DCCC's endorsement to her primary opponent Mikie Sherrill, said in a phone interview last week. “If black women are powerful enough to move markets or change the outcome of a race, we are definitely powerful enough to speak to diverse audiences and address issues that affect all of us.”

Youngblood—who’s been discouraged by the DCCC’s support for state Senator Jeff Van Drew, a conservative Democrat who’s accepted donations from the National Rifle Association and voted against same-sex marriage—has said she doesn’t “feel the loyalty back” from the party she’s supported for decades.

“They don’t see the value in a candidate like me,” Youngblood told Newsweek in March.  

“When people think about a successful candidate, they still tend to imagine a straight white man as the person to get the job done,” A’shanti Gholar, the political director at Emerge America, a training program for Democratic women candidates, told Newsweek.

“A prospective white male candidate might not even be someone with political experience—it might just be someone involved in the community or who has a background in law or education,” she continued. “Meanwhile, black women might be told, ‘You work in education but want to run for Congress? You need more experience.’”

James said this problem, though it’s been an ongoing one in the party, has become particularly glaring this year, during an election cycle with a historic number of viable black candidates up and down the ballot. He says the class of candidates includes the future “Obama and Michelles” of Washington—and Democrats may be letting them pass by.

“We haven’t seen this many great candidates, with this much raw talent, running for office in a while,” James said. “The Democratic Party should be busting down their doors to help them out.”