Ella Nilsen, Vox, June 24, 2020
In the 2018 midterms, the most successful candidates were women. In 2020, a year shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality, Black candidates are proving they’re the ones to watch — winning a spate of key races on Tuesday night.
In New York and Virginia, young, progressive candidates of color swept races against powerful incumbents and in open competitions alike. In Kentucky, where a key Senate primary is too close to call, Black progressive candidate Charles Booker is still locked in a competitive race with Marine Corps veteran Amy McGrath.
“In 2018, Dem voters showed an unprecedented desire to nominate women,” Cook Political Report House editor Dave Wasserman tweeted. “In 2020, we’re witnessing another sea change in desire, this time toward Black candidates.”
Progressive candidates of color winning a slate of New York primaries, in particular, represents a significant generational changing of the guard in the Democratic Party.
Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, 44, soundly defeated the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, 73. Though it could take days (if not longer) for all of New York’s votes to be counted, Bowman was leading Engel by more than 25 points as of Wednesday afternoon. Mondaire Jones, 32, won the open seat to replace retiring House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey. And in New York’s 12th Congressional District, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney is clinging to a slim 1.7 percent lead over progressive challenger Suraj Patel.
“The old guard in New York is on its way out,” Wasserman told Vox on Wednesday.
In a phone interview with Vox Wednesday morning, Jones said New York voters sent a clear message: They backed candidates who understand first-hand the daily struggles of Black and brown communities. Jones grew up in Section 8 housing; Bowman and New York City Council member Ritchie Torres, who is currently leading in New York’s 15th Congressional District, talked openly about growing up in public housing.
“[Voters] want to see people who reflect their own lived experiences represent them in Congress — not people who are wealthy or come from a political family,” Jones told Vox. “Whereas the Democratic establishment would coronate its own candidates in any number of districts, the actual people who are voting at the polls and experiencing a government that has never worked for everyone. … They’re making their own decisions.”
Wins by young candidates of color weren’t limited to New York. In Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, Dr. Cameron Webb, 37, emerged victorious over Emily’s List-backed Marine veteran Claire Russo. That district will be an uphill battle for Democrats, but if Webb wins the general election, he would be the first Black physician to serve as a voting member in Congress.
While younger progressives pulled off some startling upsets, they didn’t have a 100 percent success rate. For instance, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D) fended off challenger Adem Bunkeddeko, both of whom are Black and progressive, after Bunkeddeko came close to beating her in 2018. This year, Clarke’s win was resounding — she won 62 percent of the vote compared to 17 for Bunkeddeko.
Candidates including Jones, Bowman, Webb, and Booker were all campaigning months before Covid-19 hit and protests against police brutality had engulfed multiple American cities.
But there’s no question the past few months have laid bare long-standing racial inequalities in jobs, policing, and health care — in places from New York City to Louisville. Late endorsements from the Democratic Party’s progressive icons and organizing with groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party might have helped boost several of the New York candidates in particular, but they say their messages had particular resonance in the country’s current moment.
Looking at returns, Wasserman said Black candidates who won in New York and Virginia weren’t just capturing nonwhite voters; they were also winning a large share of white voters in their districts as well.
“The difference is white voters,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of evidence of an electoral shift among white Republicans, but we now do among white Democrats. It’s possible that when all is said and done, Jamaal Bowman will have won white voters in the primary, not just nonwhites.”