The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will Stacey Abrams and other black women candidates finally make the ‘backbone of the Democratic party’ its face?

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in February. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

Anyone paying attention to politics knows that black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party electorate.

This was obvious in 2016 when 94 percent of black women voted for Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and comparable numbers continued to support the party in the local elections that followed. And Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez acknowledged as much in a December 2017 tweet.

But the question remains: Will the group that produces voters reliably for the Democratic Party now produce some of the newest faces leading it?

Stacey Abrams, 44, a former minority leader of the Georgia General Assembly, is vying to become the country’s first black female governor by seeking the Democratic nomination in Georgia's gubernatorial primary on Tuesday. She is battling Stacey Evans, also a former state legislator, to compete in a general election that is going to be challenging for any Democratic candidate.

Democratic strategist Angela Rye, who was in Georgia on Monday campaigning for Abrams, told The Fix that it is past time for some of the most loyal Democrats to take the reins of the party.

“What I am banking on at this point is supporting people who I know have always supported me and my community. That does not mean that there are not wonderful candidates who are white allies. But what I am saying is I'm not waiting around. I'm not going to ask permission. I'm going to do what I know is the right thing to do and support the leader that has supported these people.”

Rye, a former Congressional Black Caucus executive director, is alluding to the idea that because of the tense political climate in 2018, some party leaders think that the Democratic Party should prioritize elevating “electable” candidates.

With Democratic optimism on the rise for a "blue wave" in 2018, here's their strategy for winning more state and national seats than Republicans. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post's Vanessa Williams profiled Abrams. She sums up the forces that are working for and against Abrams in Democratic politics:

Many party leaders have argued that Democratic candidates will succeed in these places only if they appeal to working-class white voters and others who were drawn to [Donald] Trump. But others, including several potential Democratic presidential candidates, have said that Democrats’ path to victory relies on igniting a newly muscular coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, young people and others on the left — many of whom did not vote in 2016.

It is true that the Democratic Party can count on black voters to support them in general elections. In addition to the fact that the overwhelming majority of black Americans regularly votes for Democratic candidates, the midterms are largely being viewed as a referendum on President Trump, whose approval rating with black Americans in at 13 percent, according to Gallup.

But  can anti-Trump sentiment remain strong enough for black voters to turn out in the numbers needed to beat Trump-backed candidates in general elections if black candidates aren't supported as future leaders of the party?

Some candidates in recent primaries certainly appear to be hoping so.

Some other black women recently won their primaries, including Linda Coleman, the Democratic candidate for North Carolina's 2nd Congressional District; Dee Thornton, the Democratic candidate for Indiana's 5th Congressional District seat; and Vanessa Enoch, the Democratic candidate for Ohio's 8th Congressional District. But their races are in districts that probably will be won by their GOP opponents. However, for the groups and individuals that support getting more black women in office, their races are not in vain.

And that is true even for black women running against those within their own party.

Much of the Democratic Party's focus has been on unseating Republicans or running in new districts. But Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to be elected to the Boston City Council, is trying to become the state’s first nonwhite member of the House of Representatives. She does not have the support of some of the country's most high-profile black politicians in her quest to defeat incumbent Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D). Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, perpetual Trump critic Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Calif.), and former governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, the first African American to hold that  state's highest office, have all endorsed Capuano, who is white.

Capuano occupies a reliably Democratic district, and the black lawmakers backing him said he has voted in the best interests of his constituents of color for 20 years. But while much of the focus has been on simply getting liberal candidates in office, others within the party are pushing to get left-leaning candidates that look more like their constituents to Washington. Capuano's district is the only one in the state that is not predominantly white.

“I reject the notion that we can make special exceptions for some people,” Rye told The Fix. “The times are challenging and we need to grow our political power, and we need to ensure that we are putting people in office that are bold and brave and pushing our agenda and unafraid and work hard.

“There's going to be some tough conversations and some strained friendships. But it is what it is. We have got work to do,” Rye added.

There were some notable wins for black women in primaries earlier this month. Perhaps this is the year to see whether the Democratic Party will help these candidates get across the finish line in states where voters don't have a track record of backing candidates who are African American and female.