Posted on February 18, 2021

Powered by Recent Wins, Democrats Intensify Push for Diversity Ahead of 2022

Kendall Karson, ABC News, February 11, 2021

For Erica Smith, a Democrat who announced her second consecutive bid for the U.S. Senate last month, the outcome of the 2020 Senate election in her home state of North Carolina was an “epic fail.”

Her party eked out two stunning wins in Georgia and shifted the power structure in Washington for the first time in a decade, but for her, it ended a bittersweet cycle. She lost the Democratic nomination in last year’s Senate race to a prominent former state senator only to watch him fall short in the general election.

After incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis defeated Cal Cunningham, the Democratic challenger, by roughly 100,000 votes in a scandal-ridden race last fall, it reinforced her belief that the party as a whole should “recalibrate” its philosophy on who can win elections.

“(It) showed us unequivocally that we have to stop looking for this cookie-cutter version of a candidate for U.S. Senate in the South, who is a white male with military experience and not necessarily other lived experiences,” Smith, who is Black and also a former state senator, told ABC News. “If we are the big tent party of inclusion that we say that we are, then we will stop using Black women as the most faithful, loyal voting bloc as the base of the party and allow us to be the face of the party in leadership.”

Smith isn’t the only one hoping to change the party’s entrenched ways. Democrats in North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, three states that are poised to be at the center of the battleground map in elections over the next two years, are challenging the play-it-safe primary strategy that has defined Democratic Party politics for decades.

Looking to the future while embracing the party’s most recent past — particularly the pair of Senate victories in Georgia — these Democrats, who often feel overlooked, are running for office in the hopes of reshaping the establishment’s outlook on electability.

One of those candidates is Jennifer Carroll Foy of Petersburg, one of the poorest cities in Virginia, who is competing in a crowded primary for governor against a longtime fixture in Democratic politics, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.


With his entry, McAuliffe, who is white, sets up a complicated intra-party clash. Not long after an embarrassing blackface scandal nearly toppled Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, and particularly after Vice President Kamala Harris made history with her election to the nation’s second-highest office, some in the state argue that at a time of a racial renaissance across the country, Democrats should be getting behind new, potentially historic, voices.

“Representation matters,” Carroll Foy said. “And it’s hard for little girls to be what they cannot see.”

If elected this November, Carroll Foy, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who stepped down last year to focus full-time on her campaign, would be the first Black female governor in the nation’s history. She’s also hoping to bring ideological diversity to the ticket, running to McAuliffe’s left and earning the endorsements of a slate of progressive groups, including Democracy for America and the Sunrise Movement Virginia.

“We are working hard to ensure that we will build a Virginia where its future is better than its past,” she said, a nod to the state’s racial scars. {snip}


As the issue of diversity looms over these races, candidates are not the only ones arguing that the old approach will no longer work, particularly in the South. The success in Georgia, the culmination of a decade of grassroots organizing and outreach, solidified the state’s purple hue and provided undeniable evidence of the utility of more diverse candidates, strategists and experts say.

“The strategy of chasing a traditional, white Democrat in the South is not viable,” argued Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University.

Investing in candidates who bring different demographics and backgrounds to the fold across the region and in other competitive swing states, strategists and experts said, can not only protect Democratic majorities in Congress but also redefine the look of a standard-bearer within the party.

“If white men can represent a diverse electorate, certainly I think we are in a phase in our country where Black women and candidates of color — that a diverse pool of voters can see themselves in that candidate,” said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a political action committee dedicated to electing Black women. {snip}

Across an increasingly expanding battlefield in 2022, Republicans only need a net gain of one seat to reclaim control of the Senate. Democrats are eyeing several possible pick-up opportunities to defend their slim majority, including in Ohio after Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a longtime establishment figure in the GOP, abruptly announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

The once-bellwether swing state has tilted towards Republicans in recent cycles, giving the GOP an advantage in next year’s contest. Former President Donald Trump won the state twice by the same margin of eight points, but an open seat makes the environment slightly more friendly for Democrats.


Some Democrats are publicly advocating for a multiracial, ideologically robust primary to give voters a choice between candidates who look like the state and can best galvanize the party’s base.

“I want to see some Black people in that race,” said Nina Turner, the sharp-elbowed progressive stalwart who is seen as an early favorite to replace outgoing Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge. “I want to see some Hispanic brothers and sisters in that race. We benefit from that.”