The news this week has provided a look at what might have been and what could be coming for minority candidates in the US.
What might have been is that Democrat Stacey Abrams came tantalizingly close to winning the governor’s race in Georgia this year. That didn’t keep her from getting a national audience for her response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, and she distilled their message into a speech that had pundits singing her praises.
What might be coming is that if Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam succumbs to the massive and mounting pressure to resign over racist a photograph that surfaced in his medical school yearbook, it could elevate Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax into the governor’s mansion. Fairfax, however, is now fighting an allegation of sexual harassment himself, and he has denied the allegation.
Those two things are important together because there isn’t currently an African-American governor in any of the 50 states. And there hasn’t been an African-American governor anywhere in the US in more than four years.
There have only been four African-American governors in US history. Two of those, Gov. David Paterson, who served from 2008 to 2010 in New York, and Gov. Pinckney Pinchback, who served for a little over a month as governor of Louisiana in 1872 and 1873, were elevated to office after their predecessors resigned or were driven out.
Just two African-Americans have ever been elected governor. The first of those was Gov. Douglas Wilder, elected in Northam’s Virginia in 1990, and the other is Gov. Deval Patrick, who was elected to two terms in Massachusetts. Pinchback was a Republican, but the three African-Americans who served as governor in the last three decades have been Democrats.
Abrams’ Democratic response to the State of the Union address could be a reminder for some of how difficult it has been for African-American candidates to be elected to statewide office.
But that would be the wrong message, according to Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory, who pointed out that Abrams outperformed white male Democrats who ran in previous years in Georgia, a state that still tilts toward the GOP.
That Democrats chose Abrams to deliver the response indicates party leaders know they need to appeal to the younger and minority populations that represent a growing portion of US voters.
“Democrats are no longer able to ignore racial and gender diversity in terms of what their leadership looks like,” said Gillespie. “It’s hard to imagine there not being any kind of diversity on a presidential ticket any more.”
Plus, Abrams, who alleges efforts to suppress the vote helped her opponent Gov. Brian Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state during the election, was able to speak to election reform, a key issue Democrats are pushing on Capitol Hill now that they’re in charge.
“The message the party is trying to send is that the elder leadership has heard the concerns of younger people and minorities in particular,” said Gillespie. Plus, she said, it would be awkward for party elders to have chosen a top Democrat who is either declared or considering a 2020 run.
Three African-American Democrats were on the Election Day ballots for the 27 governor’s races in 2018. That’s about 11%. It was a blue-wave year in terms of the House of Representatives, but none of three featured African-American Democrats won their races. It’s also true that there are a growing number of minorities on the bench for governorships.
In addition to Fairfax in Virginia, there are newly elected Democrats serving as lieutenant governor in Illinois with Juliana Stratton, Wisconsin with Mandela Barnes, Sheila Oliver in New Jersey and Michigan with Garlin Gilchrist. There are also African-American Republicans serving as lieutenant governor with Boyd Rutherford in Maryland and Jenean Hampton in Kentucky.
It’s the success and exposure of these candidates and officeholders, Gillespie says, that will have the effect of drawing more into the fold in the future.
Both Georgia and Virginia are well above the national average in terms of minority demographics, particularly African-Americans. But white voters in both states still outperform their share of the population. Black voters, unlike other minorities, vote in elections at about their share of the population in Virginia and Georgia.
Georgia’s black voting age population was a 30% in 2018, according to Census data. And black voters made up about 30% of the electorate in 2018, according to CNN’s exit polls.
Similarly in Virginia, the black voting age population was about 19% in 2018. Their share of the electorate in 2017 was 20%, according to exit polls. Other minority groups, like Latino and Asian Americans do not turn out as often on Election Day, which is one reason white voters in Virginia and Georgia have continued to outperform their share of the population.
White voters were 57% of the voting age population in Georgia in 2018, according to Census data, but were 60% of the electorate, according to exit polls. That may not seem like a large difference, but when elections turn on small margins, as Georgia’s did in 2018, small differences can have a huge impact. In 2017 in Virginia, where Democrats won the governor and lieutenant governor races, white voters were 67% of voters in exit polls in 2018 and made up 65% of the voting age population in 2018.
What is changing is the growth of other minority groups. Latino voters were a larger portion of the vote in both states in the most recent elections. They grew from 4% to 6% of voters in Virginia between 2013 and 2017, according to exit polls, but that still underperforms their nearly 8% of the population. In Georgia, they grew from 4% in 2014 to 5% of voters in Georgia, according to exit polls, but represent 6% of the voting age population. Asians grew from 1% to 3% of voters in Virginia between the two elections, but that underperforms their 6% of the voting age population. They grew from 1% of voters in 2014 in Georgia to 2% in 2018, but that again underperforms their 4% of the voting age population.
The point is that it’s clear the party has seen the logic in tapping its talented minority members, even if they aren’t currently in office, and that voters are not averse to turning out for minority candidates.
Which means there will be more minority candidates in the very near future.