“In the shadow of Barack Obama, there’s not been a lot of growth,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster who was involved in the president’s 2008 campaign, said. “It is really hard for minorities to get elected at the statewide level, and before you start talking about president, frankly, you have to get elected to statewide office.”
The notion of a post-Obama reformation of black politics has not been borne out at the ballot box, as black politicians continue to struggle to win the statewide offices that are the traditional paths to the presidency.
While the election of the first black president marked a significant break from the country’s history of racial prejudice, race still matters: The vast majority of black elected officials are put into office by black voters. Even Obama needed large numbers of black and Latino votes to win, particularly last year, when a majority of whites voters voted for someone else.
Ashley Bell, a former county official in Georgia who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party with an eye on a future run for statewide office, said that Obama “did convince a lot of young black politicians that they can aspire to crossover offices. We may not live in a post-racial America, but I think we do live in a new era of politics where, on either side of the aisle, everyone knows that a good political candidate is one with crossover appeal, be they white or black or Latino.”
While the country’s changing demographics will favor political leaders of color in the future, the current landscape remains challenging for minority candidates seeking statewide office, particularly governorships and U.S. Senate seats, the typical steppingstones to presidential bids.
Deval L. Patrick (D-Mass.) currently is the nation’s only black governor, and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is the only black member of the Senate, having recently been appointed to fill a vacancy.
Patrick, 56, is often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, but he has said he has no plans to run in 2016. No other black politicians’ names have come up on the short list of credible contenders for the next national election.
On the GOP side of the aisle, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has been mentioned as a possible candidate but has steadfastly denied any interest. Colin Powell, who preceded Rice as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, was once a favored GOP prospect, but he also declined to run.
Most recently, Herman Cain, a black Georgia businessman, was briefly a hit among Republican grass-roots activists in the run-up to the primaries, but he dropped his candidacy after a woman revealed a longtime extramarital affair and other women accused him of sexual harassment.
Obama’s political trajectory was extraordinary for any political figure. He rocketed to the top tier of national politics after a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he used his personal story and oratorical skills to call for uniting a country long divided by race and partisan politics. His election that year to the Senate was helped by the implosion of his strongest opponents in the primary and general elections.
Obama was the third African American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction when he won the seat from Illinois seat in 2004; Patrick is only the second black governor elected since that period.
Black politicians seeking to build cross-racial coalitions must make sure they don’t alienate black voters with their appeals to white and others. Former Washington mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), whose name was often included in the list of black political leaders who, like Obama, crossed the old lines of racial politics, lost his bid for a second term after African American voters deemed him more concerned with pleasing the city’s growing white professional class.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), whose name is still on the A-list of nouveau black pols, struggled to overcome the skepticism of African American voters in his first, unsuccessful mayoral campaign.
Booker, a Rhodes Scholar who grew up in Harrington Park, N.J., an upscale suburb of Newark, lost in 2002 to longtime former mayor Sharpe James (D), who said Booker was “not black enough.”
The 43-year-old Booker, now in his second term as mayor, filed papers this month to form a campaign committee for a Senate run in 2014. He also is mentioned as a potential future presidential candidate. Booker’s office did not make him available for an interview.
Scott’s performance in South Carolina’s 2014 Senate race, if he decides to seek a full term, will add to the debate about how much racial politics have changed. Black residents make up 28 percent of South Carolina’s population and are solidly Democratic. The state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, is Indian American, and both she and the 48-year-old Scott launched their political careers in predominantly white districts.
Artur Davis, a former House member from Alabama, worked hard to present himself as a crossover candidate when he set out to become the first black governor of his state.
But he turned off black voters by distancing himself from Obama and Alabama’s black leadership and, failing to pick up significant white support, made a surprisingly poor showing in the Democratic primary.
Davis, who has since joined the Republican Party and moved to Northern Virginia, acknowledged the challenge faced by black politicians striving to break barriers. But he said that each contest is unique.
“Political breakthroughs depend more on the circumstance of one person than some magic alchemy of timing,” Davis wrote in an e-mail. “If a black with sufficient political skills, a fundraising base, and a record that appeals to the voters in his or her party emerges, that person will be taken seriously in a way that would not have been possible for my parents’ generation.”
Davis predicted that “within the Democratic Party, the internal pressure to nominate a white female will be far greater than any impetus to elevate a Deval Patrick or Cory Booker in the near future.”
A Hispanic might also have a better shot at the White House before another African American. There are five Hispanic governors and senators, most of them Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who at 41 is being touted as presidential timber.
Many post-civil rights and Generation X black political leaders have demonstrated the political and cultural dexterity to move up to statewide office, sometimes in states that have very small black populations, such as Colorado, where 4.3 percent of the residents are black.
Two years ago, Kamala Harris, who is of African-American and Indian-American descent, was elected attorney general of California, a first in a statewide race. Blacks make up only 6.6 percent of state’s population. She is often talked about as a future gubernatorial candidate.
But in Alabama, where black residents make up 26.5 percent of the population, Davis lost his primary for governor in 2010. Similarly, Thurbert Baker lost in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Georgia, where nearly a third of the residents are black. Baker had been elected state attorney general three times.
For those who manage to win their party’s nominations, general elections have proven to be be extreme long shots.
Johnny DuPree won the Mississippi Democratic primary for governor in 2011, the first African American to do so in recent history. DuPree, 59, the first black mayor of Hattiesburg, lost to his Republican opponent in the general election by 20 percentage points.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said black candidates in the South, most of who are Democrats, are disadvantaged as much by their party as by their race.
“Georgia and Alabama don’t have any Democrats in statewide office. None,” said Bullock said. “If you’re running statewide and you’re a Democrat, regardless of your ethnicity or your gender, you’re going to lose.”
More than half of the country’s African Americans live in the South, and continued demographic changes could upend its politics over the next two decades. Several states are projected to have populations mostly comprised of people of color.
Already there are signs. Bullock said that in 1996, whites cast 78 percent of all votes; in 2008, the percentage was down to 64 percent.
Bullock said voter rolls show that whites made up less than 60 percent of registered voters in Georgia last year.
Those nonwhite voters will most likely back Democrats, Bullock said. “Unless the Republicans come up with a broader, more encompassing message, all they will succeed in getting is white voters, but they will ultimately run out of white voters.”
“The demographics are changing in favor of minority candidates,” said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. In addition to population growth among Latinos and Asians, Kohut pointed to a generational change in attitudes about race.
“It’s simple: Generational demographics really favor minority candidates,” he said.