African Americans turned out to vote in huge numbers last Tuesday, but as Aaron Blake points out at The Fix, that didn’t translate to an advantage for any African American candidate other than Barack Obama. Not that it should; as a right-wing Republican, Allen West is never going to get more than trivial support from African Americans, who are overwhelming supporters of the Democratic Party. And indeed, each of the three black Republicans who ran for competitive seats this year lost. But the same was true for black candidates writ large: African American Democrats ran for open House seats in Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, California and South Carolina, and lost in each, leaving the number of black House members unchanged from the 112th Congress.
In the course of explaining this, however, Blake raises a larger question. Where are the black statewide candidates? In this cycle, there was one: Vermont Republican State Sen. Randy Brock, who lost in a landslide to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. In the 135 years since Reconstruction, there have been four black senators — Edward Brooke, Carol Mosley Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris — and two black governors, Douglas Wilder in Virginia and the currently serving Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. No black senator or governor has ever served concurrently with another. And while there are 44 African American members of the House, no black House member has moved to the upper chamber, despite the fact that it’s a common pathway for ambitious politicians: Nearly half of the members in the current Senate — 49 — served in the House at some point in their careers.
Obviously, in the past, racial prejudice played an overwhelming part in keeping African Americans from statewide office, but in the modern era, it’s a little more complicated. In a paper published earlier this year, Vanderbilt political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer described a set of structural obstacles — common but not unique to black politicians — that block the usual paths to advancement.
First, most African American House members represent districts in large states. Not only do they have more competitors for Senate seats, they also have lower name recognition because they represent a smaller share of their state’s population than do House members from smaller states.
Second, because African American politicians — and House members in particular — tend to represent other African Americans, they almost always have liberal voting records, making a reach to the center more difficult if they decide to run statewide, where — in most places — moderates and independents determine the outcome of the election. What’s more, attempts to move to the right can spark a backlash among constituents — see former Alabama representative Artur Davis’s failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination for governor in his state.
Finally, African Americans tend to represent less-affluent districts. If “friends and neighbors” provide your base for fundraising, you have less access to deep pockets than a comparably situated white candidate. In turn, this makes it hard to build credibility with party leaders who are looking for candidates who can do a fair amount — if not most — of the fundraising on their own.
None of this is to discount the effect of racism in limiting the political viability of black candidates: Even Barack Obama — the most successful black politician in this nation’s history — is estimated to have lost up to three points in the 2008 election due to his race. And indeed, the constraints faced by black candidates are themselves the product of long-standing racial inequalities: If black politicians almost always represent black constituencies, for example, it’s because of historic housing patterns shaped by racial discrimination.
Still, the problems faced by black candidates aren’t reducible to race, and they are difficult to solve. At one point, I thought black Republicans might be able to break the cycle. Because they almost always represent white districts, the problems with fundraising and ideology are less acute; they have better access to cash, and they are more likely to reside near the state’s median voter.
But as this cycle showed, it remains hard for black Republicans to win in the House, much less statewide.