Wesley Hunt, a top GOP recruit to flip a Houston-area House seat, boasts a resume that includes being a West Point graduate and an Army officer with multiple deployments in the Middle East.
Yet Hunt says that because he’s Black he isn’t sure he could have waged a successful political campaign a decade or two ago.
“It’s way better now to run as a person of color than it would have been 10, 15 definitely 20 years ago,” said Hunt who won his primary in Texas’s 7th District, which includes parts of Houston and its suburbs. “What I’m seeing in my district is people care less about the way I look. They care more about the values I represent.”
Black candidates across the country are winning primaries and running in competitive districts, which could make the next Congress a record-breaking one for Black lawmakers. Their political involvement comes as the country grapples with a history of fraught race relations and an outcry over the death of unarmed Black man George Floyd after White Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck.
Although a number of primary races have yet to be called or require runoffs, several Black Democratic candidates are positioned to win in liberal-leaning districts. Among them are New Yorkers Jamaal Bowman in the 16th District and Mondaire Jones in the 17th. Both would replace longtime White incumbents.
Other Black candidates, such as Hunt, who is running in a suburban district that flipped Democratic in 2018, and Democrat Cameron Webb in Virginia’s 5th District, have clinched their nominations and face competitive November contests.
Currently, the 116th Congress has a record 57 Black legislators, including 52 House members, two delegates, and three senators.
Some Black Democrats have benefited from the rise in progressive activism in response to allegations of police using excessive force against minorities. The movement was partially credited for Webb’s landslide primary win and a late surge of support behind Senate Democratic primary candidate Charles Booker in Kentucky, although he ultimately fell short of victory.
Prominent Black Republican candidates, including Hunt, Burgess Owens in Utah’s 4th District and John James in Michigan’s Senate race, are competing in areas where Blacks are a minority.
Hunt said that although his candidacy is based on helping his district, regardless of race, he noted the need for more diversity in his party. In the 116th Congress, the only Black Republicans are Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), who isn’t running for re-election.
“We don’t need fewer Black people in the Republican Party, we need more,” he said. “I want to make sure there are Black people on both sides who can lend a minority ear to things that need to be passed.”
Despite the increase in enthusiasm, groups backing Black candidates said neither party is doing enough to provide money and staff for the campaigns.
“If they want to be on the right side of history, they have to do more,” said Quentin James, the founder and president of The Collective PAC. “And more isn’t painting Black Lives Matter on your building. More isn’t having more diversity and inclusion training. More means money. More means power.”
It can be harder for a Black candidate to post strong fundraising numbers, a metric parties use when deciding which candidates to back, said Niccara Campbell, political director at the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee.
“You can’t really ask all Black candidates to go Rolodex their network when their network is people who can only give $5 or $15,” she said. There are, however, examples of fundraising prowess, such as Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and who took in almost $14 million in the second quarter of this year.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went through a major shakeup last year after prominent Black and Hispanic lawmakers slammed the group for a lack of diversity in its upper ranks. The campaign committee responded by hiring new staffers and naming Lucinda Guinn, a Hispanic woman and a former executive at EMILY’S List, as executive director.
Increasing diversity on the ballot is a goal for both parties. Of the 21 House candidates supported through the highest tier of the GOP’s Young Guns program, 12 are women and five are Black, Hispanic or Asian. In the DCCC’s Red-to-Blue program, there are 20 women and nine racial minorities out of the 24 candidates.
The DCCC’s candidate in Arkansas’s 2nd District, Joyce Elliott, last ran for Congress in 2010. In that time, campaign dynamics have changed for Black candidates, she said.
“If you were going to have an opportunity, you had to be running in a predominantly African American district,” she said. “Election after election, I have seen that change.”
In 2018, four Black lawmakers were elected for the first time in districts where less than 5% of the population was Black, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis: Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) and Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.).
“It doesn’t have to be a Black district in order for a Black person to represent it, and we proved that over and over again in 2018.” said Yolonda Addison, executive director of the CBC PAC.
There’s also a push for more Black women in Congress. Of the 57 Black lawmakers currently serving, 25 are women, all but one in the House.
As more Black women win seats in Congress, they will take on leadership positions, run for higher offices and encourage others to seek office as well, said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of the Higher Heights Leadership Fund.
James said if the number of Black lawmakers elected to the House in 2020 hits 57, the 117th Congress would be the first time Black Americans’ representation in the House would be equal to their percentage of the overall population. He added that because Black Democratic elected officials are often more progressive, this could mean more bills on criminal justice, policing overhaul, and health care.
“They bring with them each and every day these issues that we’re seeing bleed out of our cities,” said James.
With assistance from Greg Giroux