Democrats Aim for a Breakthrough for Black Women in the Senate

Democrats Aim for a Breakthrough for Black Women in the Senate

Democrats Aim for a Breakthrough for Black Women in the Senate

Carol Moseley Braun, one of only two Black women to have been elected to the Senate in U.S. history, was in Paris on Wednesday when she was informed that another Black woman, Angela Alsobrooks, had won the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat in Maryland.

“Praise the Lord,” she said with relief and surprise. “That’s wonderful.”

With Alsobrooks’ come-from-behind victory in Tuesday’s primary, voters in November will most likely have the chance to double the number of Black women ever elected to the Senate. Another Democrat, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, is the odds-on favorite to win her party’s nomination in September for an open Senate seat in heavily Democratic Delaware. If both win in November, for the first time, two Black women will serve in Congress’ upper chamber at the same time.

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“It’s been a long time coming,” said Moseley Braun, who became the first Black female senator when she was elected from Illinois in 1992 and now serves as chair of the U.S. African Development Foundation. The second, from California, is now the vice president, Kamala Harris. A third, Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., was appointed to fill a vacant seat, but is not running for reelection.

For years, the national Democratic Party has faced criticism that it has declined to back Black women to the hilt, either in primaries or general elections, when they have run for statewide offices. Rep. Barbara Lee, a seasoned political veteran and an anti-war icon, received barely a glance from the party apparatus this year when she ran for an open Senate seat in California.

Cheri Beasley, a former state chief justice in North Carolina, was given only a trickle of party money in her campaign for Senate in 2022. Stacey Abrams often grumbled about the level of support she garnered for her two runs for governor of Georgia.

Out of 75 Black women who have run or are running for the Senate since 2010, 10 have secured major-party nominations, including Alsobrooks and Valerie McCray, who is running a long-shot campaign in Indiana this fall. No Black woman has ever been elected governor, and out of the 28 who have run for the position since 2010, only four have become major-party nominees, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. All of the nominees have been Democrats.

Lee said Black women enter statewide races with headwinds from party officials who doubt they can raise enough money and polling that gives their candidacies short shrift. They then face donors who point to the polling and sit on their wallets.

“It becomes a vicious cycle,” she said.

Alsobrooks, the county executive of Prince George’s County, a diverse suburb of Washington, D.C., has broken the mold. While her primary opponent, Rep. David Trone, could have tapped a vast fortune from his Total Wine & More empire, Alsobrooks pulled in the Democratic elite, including national figures such as Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, as well as most of Maryland’s power structure, including Gov. Wes Moore, and the senator she hopes to serve with, Chris Van Hollen.

“Where we are is a realization of how valuable Black women — and women in general — are to the Democratic Party,” said Yvette Lewis, who stepped down as Maryland’s Democratic Party chair to advise the Alsobrooks campaign. “We are the backbone of the party. We are the consistent voters.”

With its large urban and suburban populations in and around Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Maryland is racially diverse — and its Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. The Pew Research Center said 43% of Democratic voters and 7% of Republican voters in the state were Black.

Alsobrooks still has a race ahead of her, against Larry Hogan, a popular former governor of Maryland who hopes to be an anti-Trump voice in the Senate Republican Conference. Republicans on Wednesday said they would not shy away from attacking Alsobrooks’ record in Prince George’s County, which has long struggled with crime and budgetary and management issues. They have faith that Hogan — whose victory in the governor’s race of 2014 still stands as a stunning surprise — maintains his pull in the Black community, especially with Black men.

Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, the chair of National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Alsobrooks had “underfunded law enforcement” during her tenure, while Hogan had “delivered results for Maryland by reaching across the aisle.”

In choosing Alsobrooks, Maryland Democratic voters turned away a self-funder, Trone, who had already spent more than $60 million of his own money in the race. The Democratic nominee will have to raise money quickly.

But Alsobrooks is the favorite, said Jessica Taylor, the chief Senate analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Maryland is more Democratic than all the other Senate battlegrounds are Republican, even Ohio and Montana — the states where Democratic incumbents are most endangered. Maryland elected President Joe Biden in 2020 by 33 percentage points.

The state is distinct for its proximity to Washington, with an educated electorate that is closely tied to the federal government and keenly aware of the difference between electing a Republican as governor and electing one to the Senate, Taylor said. And Alsobrooks is the kind of candidate who can energize Democratic voters in a presidential election year when Maryland will not be in play.

Republicans and Democrats said Wednesday that Trone had proved himself to be a bad candidate, prone to gaffes that would have depressed Black turnout. Alsobrooks began picking up steam in March after Trone used a racial slur — jigaboo — at a House hearing when he meant to use “bugaboo.” Five Black House Democrats endorsed Alsobrooks after that gaffe.

This month, Trone again raised eyebrows when he told a local reporter that he could relate to Black voters because he had grown up without indoor plumbing and his family had struggled with alcoholism.

Taylor said she saw no reason to change her rating of the race from “likely Democrat.”

For Black women, Alsobrooks’ victory over an affluent male candidate with the backing of much of the House Democratic leadership was particularly gratifying, said Donna Brazile, who became the first Black woman to manage a presidential campaign in 2000, when she led Al Gore’s effort. Alsobrooks was an intern for Brazile when she was chief of staff to the District of Columbia’s House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

When Alsobrooks announced her candidacy a year ago, Brazile, Lewis and other Black women got together to brainstorm on the campaign. Not only do Black female candidates face questions about their ability to raise enough money, but there are also broader issues of “cultural acceptance” that they must clear, Moseley Braun said.

But Alsobrooks’ run was coming on the heels of 2022, when the state overwhelmingly elected Moore, its first Black governor, Brazile noted, and at a time when Black and female political organizations are becoming more adept at fundraising and more seasoned, Brazile said.

“The road to Black participation started with winning the right to vote,” she said. “The second stage was convincing Black voters to register. The third was preparing them to serve.”

“It takes time,” she said.

Lee said Alsobrooks, Rochester and she had done fundraisers for one another, supported one another’s campaigns and tried to get as many Black women across the finish line as possible. Lee did not make it, but she said she was thrilled that the others still might.

“So much of what we fought for, so many struggles that Black women have had, not just now but over the years: This is a breakthrough,” she said. “The gravity of this moment can’t be overstated.”

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