In the 2018 midterms, the most successful candidates were women. In 2020, a year shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality, Black candidates are proving they’re the ones to watch — winning a spate of key races on Tuesday night.
In New York and Virginia, young, progressive candidates of color swept races against powerful incumbents and in open competitions alike. In Kentucky, where a key Senate primary is too close to call, Black progressive candidate Charles Booker is still locked in a competitive race with Marine Corps veteran Amy McGrath.
“In 2018, Dem voters showed an unprecedented desire to nominate women,” Cook Political Report House editor Dave Wasserman tweeted. “In 2020, we’re witnessing another sea change in desire, this time toward Black candidates.”
In 2018, Dem voters showed an unprecedented desire to nominate women. In 2020, we're witnessing another sea change in desire, this time towards Black candidates:— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) June 24, 2020
Jamaal Bowman in #NY16
Mondaire Jones in #NY17
Cameron Webb in #VA05
All winning in landslides so far.
Progressive candidates of color winning a slate of New York primaries, in particular, represents a significant generational changing of the guard in the Democratic Party.
Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, 44, soundly defeated the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, 73. Though it could take days (if not longer) for all of New York’s votes to be counted, Bowman was leading Engel by more than 25 points as of Wednesday afternoon. Mondaire Jones, 33, won the open seat to replace retiring House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey. And in New York’s 12th Congressional District, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney is clinging to a slim 1.7 percent lead over progressive challenger Suraj Patel.
“The old guard in New York is on its way out,” Wasserman told Vox on Wednesday.
In a phone interview with Vox Wednesday morning, Jones said New York voters sent a clear message: They backed candidates who understand first-hand the daily struggles of Black and brown communities. Jones grew up in Section 8 housing; Bowman and New York City Council member Ritchie Torres, who is currently leading in New York’s 15th Congressional District, talked openly about growing up in public housing.
“[Voters] want to see people who reflect their own lived experiences represent them in Congress — not people who are wealthy or come from a political family,” Jones told Vox. “Whereas the Democratic establishment would coronate its own candidates in any number of districts, the actual people who are voting at the polls and experiencing a government that has never worked for everyone. ... They’re making their own decisions.”
Wins by young candidates of color weren’t limited to New York. In Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, Dr. Cameron Webb, 37, emerged victorious over Emily’s List-backed Marine veteran Claire Russo. That district will be an uphill battle for Democrats, but if Webb wins the general election, he would be the first Black physician to serve as a voting member in Congress.
The Fifth Congressional District encompasses a massive part of the state stretching from Northwest Virginia all the way down to its southern borders with North Carolina. It contains the city of Charlottesville and both suburban and rural areas, and it’s nearly 75 percent white and 20 percent Black. Cook currently rates the district Lean Republican, with an R+6 rating.
“Democrats need a perfect storm to win Virginia’s Fifth Congressional district, but that storm may be brewing,” Wasserman said. “Webb could be uniquely positioned for the moment given his background in medicine, his race, and his family roots.”
Webb’s candidacy will be a key test of whether a young Black candidate can do well in a district that is very different from blue New York City.
While younger progressives pulled off some startling upsets, they didn’t have a 100 percent success rate. For instance, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D) fended off challenger Adem Bunkeddeko, both of whom are Black and progressive, after Bunkeddeko came close to beating her in 2018. This year, Clarke’s win was resounding — she won 62 percent of the vote compared to 17 for Bunkeddeko.
Although the highly watched Kentucky Democratic primary for Senate only had a fraction of votes counted on Wednesday morning, it was clear that Charles Booker, the youngest Black state lawmaker in Kentucky, was not letting Marine Corps veteran Amy McGrath sweep the race.
“The constituencies now leading grassroots movements will only become more essential to the Democratic Party’s future,” Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid told Vox in a statement. “The Squad is here to stay, and it’s growing.”
Candidates of color broke through talking about systemic poverty and inequality
Candidates including Jones, Bowman, Webb, and Booker were all campaigning months before Covid-19 hit and protests against police brutality had engulfed multiple American cities.
But there’s no question the past few months have laid bare long-standing racial inequalities in jobs, policing, and health care — in places from New York City to Louisville. Late endorsements from the Democratic Party’s progressive icons and organizing with groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party might have helped boost several of the New York candidates in particular, but they say their messages had particular resonance in the country’s current moment.
“We need more people in Congress for whom policy is personal. I was the only candidate talking about racial justice before the events of the past several weeks,” Jones told Vox. “I’m grateful more people now are seeing it.”
Looking at returns, Wasserman said Black candidates who won in New York and Virginia weren’t just capturing nonwhite voters; they were also winning a large share of white voters in their districts as well.
“The difference is white voters,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of evidence of an electoral shift among white Republicans, but we now do among white Democrats. It’s possible that when all is said and done, Jamaal Bowman will have won white voters in the primary, not just nonwhites.”
Black candidates running in the June 23 primaries often talked about poverty and how it was personal to them. On the campaign trail in Kentucky, Booker — who is diabetic — shared how he would have to ration his insulin because he couldn’t afford it.
“Poverty is a policy choice, and it’s not a partisan thing,” Booker told Vox in a recent interview. “For many of us, the only thing we have to look forward to is a lot of struggle, is a lot of heartache. I’ve lived that struggle.”
In a Tuesday night speech, Bowman talked about eradicating poverty at length, and seeing the impacts of poverty on the New York school children he’s worked with as a public educator.
“Poverty is not a result of children and families who don’t work hard,” Bowman said. “Our children and families work as hard as anyone else. Poverty is by political design, and it’s rooted in a system that has been fractured and corrupt and rotten from its core from the inception of America.”
A progressive operative in New York told Vox the races in the state were about much more than the ideological split of progressives versus moderate Democrats. It was also about which candidates were present in the community and understood the struggles of its poorest members. For instance, Engel’s district was hit hard by Covid-19, a disease disproportionately killing Black and brown people.
“Candidates who felt responsive and right for this moment won,” a person close to the Bowman campaign told Vox.
As Vox’s Emily Stewart wrote, even though Engel was successful at bringing money and resources back home, “he was unable to overcome the perception that he had become disconnected from his district,” which is a diverse one encompassing parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.
As Stewart wrote, “during the coronavirus crisis and then the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the narrative that the Congress member was not attentive enough to his district — one he denied — took even stronger hold.” Even with endorsements from powerful New York Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Engel could not survive his primary.
Even with the Kentucky Senate race too close to call, the June 23 primaries show young Black candidates have momentum on their side this year.
“Eliot Engel used to say he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump, but you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anyone, anything else? A Black man with power,” Bowman said during his Tuesday night speech.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Mondaire Jones’s age. He is 33.