Critics say the Democratic Party is failing black candidates

Uwhen Quentin James saw a chart showing some of his party’s Senate spending this year, he was appalled.

The chart lists the combined spending of the Democratic Senate campaign arm — the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) — and the Senate Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. It included spending in six battlefield contests by the end of September. James noticed the long blue bar dominating the top of the graph, representing the money spent to support John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate locked in one of the largest high-profile competitions in the country in Pennsylvania.

Another observation stood out: The two candidates at the bottom of the rankings – Rep. Val Demings and Cheri Beasley—both were black women.

“We understand that decisions have to be made to maximize resources,” said James, founder and president of The Collective PAC, which works to elect black Democratic candidates. “But it seems like black candidates, black female candidates, always get the short end of the stick.”

Beasley and Demings are running for Senate in states that Donald Trump won twice: North Carolina and Florida. If one of them wins, they will be the first black senator from their state. But as Election Day nears, both look like underdogs, leading some to suggest the Democratic Party should have done more to support its black female candidates.

DSCC says the graph James saw gives an incomplete picture of costs. Outside of direct contributions, the committee has raised funds for Beasley and Demings through events and emails. And James says he later learned more about North Carolina Senate Majority PAC spending that wasn’t included in the chart, making him more comfortable with his investment in Beasley’s race. Still, he and others remain disillusioned with the party’s efforts to favor black candidates in general.

Both Beasley and Demings quickly cleared their primary fields, but faced early pessimism about the viability of their bids. Throughout the year, they managed to stay within striking distance of their opponents thanks to what Democrats widely consider sparkling resumes and strong campaigns. Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, lost his 2020 bid to retain the seat by less than 500 votes, having previously won two statewide elections. Demings, a former Orlando police chief who was shortlisted for President Biden’s running mate, is entering the Florida Senate race surprisingly competitive.

Both campaigns have posted impressive fundraising numbers. According to FEC records, Demings had raised more than $70 million for her Senate bid as of mid-October, while her opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio, had raised just over half that. In North Carolina, Beasley raised $34 million; her opponent, Rep. Ted Budd, brought in about a third of that. Both women have proven that black women candidates are more than viable in swing states or those that are trending red; they can be among the strongest in the party.

“We know that candidates of color, and especially black women, are competitive at the highest level,” Jessica Knight Henry, DSCC’s deputy executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, said in a statement to TIME. “The strength of these candidates and the commitment of their campaigns put Republicans on the defensive in the Senate map and helped Democrats protect and expand our Senate majority.”

But Election Day is days away, and both races remain Republican losses. Demings trails Rubio in nearly every public poll, often by more than a few points. Beasley’s race seems much closer…poll conducted this week found herself battling Republican candidate Ted Budd, but she’s trailing in the latest polls as well.

Black leaders say polls have been wrong before. But they also warn that if both women lose next week, the Democratic Party will face payback.

“The Democratic Party has an opportunity to help them overcome the hurdle,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change.

Adding to the criticism is Georgia, which Democrats managed to flip in 2020, giving Biden the electoral votes he needed to become president and electing Democrats in two key Senate runoffs. The work of activists like Stacey Abrams, now making her second run for governor, and other black women to register and turn out black voters was seen as central to turning the state blue.

Robinson says the Democratic Party takes black women for granted, repeatedly asking them to “vote and raise their voices, but then being excluded from opportunities to actually lead.”

“The Democratic Party needs to understand that black people, black women, are not going to be okay just as foot soldiers to push white candidates into power,” he says.

Lack of money is what is most discouraging to black leaders. With some of the party’s mega-donors largely absent from the midterm elections and Democratic Senate incumbents facing tough races in Nevada and Georgia, other priorities have overshadowed races involving black women.

Still, despite the shortfall, groups affiliated with the party have invested millions in North Carolina. EMILY’s List, an abortion rights group that supports female candidates, poured in nearly $3 million in September. An SMP spokesman said the PAC has spent more than $22 million in total in North Carolina, including $15 million on television, starting with a seven-figure ad in May, countering a Republican onslaught. The investment continued with more than eight million dollars in the last month of the campaign.

There have been no comparable expenditures in Florida. The Miami Herald reported last month to the dismay of some strategists who believed the cash influx could help Demings close the gap there — especially in August, when the Democratic outlook looked rosier and more outsiders were considering investing. It never materialized.

If Beasley and Demings lose, Democrats will have to grapple with why and what might change things for black women who hope to make history in future elections. The same is true of the Georgia governor’s race, though few would have thought more money would matter there. Abrams and her steering committee alone have brought in over $100 million. The Democratic Governors Association was her biggest donor this year, contributing nearly six million dollars.

But Abrams still lags in the polls. Black leaders believe she deserves more – if not money, then faith. Although Abrams has often faced harsher media coverage than her fellow Georgia Democrat, Sen. Raphael Warnock, much of the talk about Georgia in Democratic circles has focused on the Senate race. This is feedback; polls drive interest, which drives polls.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Abrams attracted high-profile supporters, including former President Barack Obama and first lady Jill Biden. But in the eyes of some who have followed her campaign for months, the effort appears half-hearted, especially in light of Democratic leaders for years hailing black women as the “backbone” of the party.

“The party raises money from individuals,” said Glinda Carr, co-founder and president of Higher Heights, which works to increase the political power of black women. “There are thought leaders, stakeholders and partners who have helped create an echo chamber around where we will make decisions. You can’t say, “Oh, this [Democratic National Committee] don’t do that [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] don’t do that.’ It’s all interconnected.”

This interconnectedness makes it difficult to say who should be held responsible if all three candidates fail this year. The Abrams and Demings campaigns declined to comment for this story. Beasley’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on whether the party had done enough to support her. She addressed the issue while speaking to reporters in early October after five polls found her even with or within one point of Budd.

“I feel really good about the support we’re seeing nationally and here in North Carolina,” she said.

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Write to Mini Rucker at [email protected].

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