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Of the 2,002 people who have served in the US Senate, two have been Black women. The 2024 election may add at least one more.
Black female Democrats are strong early competitors in Delaware, Maryland, and California. A couple others are underdog candidates vying to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
That such a small cohort is noteworthy after 234 years of Senate history shows what a colossal challenge top statewide elective offices have been for ambitious politicians who are both female and Black.
“A lot of people I talk to are shocked when I tell them that, one, there are no Black women in the Senate, and two, that there only have been two since 1789,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only Black woman among the major candidates for the seat of retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D).
And if two seems like a low number, consider how many Black women have been elected governor of a US state: zero.
Despite gains in downballot races, the top jobs have been more difficult to achieve. Black women hold 374 seats in state legislatures, making up 5% of state lawmakers nationwide, according to Black Women in American Politics 2023, a report by the group Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
One of the dynamics that distinguishes the 2024 campaign cycle is the strength of the candidacies of Black female candidates.
That wasn’t the case in 2022, when there were four Black female Senate nominees, the most ever. All four were Democrats in uphill contests.
All four lost.
In Florida, then-Rep. Val Demings (D) was defeated by Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in a landslide election year for Republicans. In North Carolina, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) fell to Rep. Ted Budd (R) in a close race.
The 100-member chamber has had no Black woman since Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) ascended to the vice presidency in January 2021 after four years in the Senate.
“We should never be in a situation where there are zero Black women in the US Senate ever again,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder and president of Higher Heights, which advocates for more Black women in political office.
The 2024 Candidates
In addition to Lee, who’s running in a crowded primary against strong competitors, the field of 2024 Black female Senate candidates includes Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Prince George’s (Md.) County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D), Michigan state education board chair Pamela Pugh (D), and former Michigan state Rep. Leslie Love (D).
The closest to a shoo-in is Blunt Rochester.
After winning four statewide US House races, she has the backing of Sen. Tom Carper (D), who announced his support the day he announced his retirement.
The first woman and person of color to represent Delaware in Congress, Blunt Rochester so far doesn’t have serious opposition in the primary, which is the key election in strongly Democratic Delaware, or in the general election.
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In an interview, Blunt Rochester said that if she makes an impact with her work, “the history will follow.”
“There are people that are looking at me and watching what I do, and I take seriously that representation,” she said. “I take that responsibility seriously.”
Like Blunt Rochester, the other Black female hopefuls are running in Democratic-leaning states, and they all share the advantage of having no incumbent in their races.
Plus it’s a presidential election cycle, so they could benefit from turnout for President Joe Biden — or perhaps vice versa. Black women, who account for about 8% of the US population, are the most loyally Democratic voting bloc, with 90% backing Biden and Harris in 2020, according to exit polls.
In Maryland, Alsobrooks is competing for the Democratic nomination with the owner of the Total Wine & More chain, Rep. David Trone, and with Montgomery County Councilman Will Jawando for the seat of retiring Sen. Ben Cardin (D). Trone is White and Jawando is Black.
“I think it is necessary in this moment that we increase the representation of women in general in the Senate,” Alsobrooks said in an interview.
In her campaign, she said she’ll emphasize her public service record, including work as a domestic violence prosecutor and then as the top prosecutor and executive of Maryland’s second-most-populous county.
“I am in it because I have the best experience as a chief law enforcement officer and chief executive,” Alsobrooks said. “And I think it is also that I have the unique lived experience as a woman, a mother, and an African American woman that adds to that.”
Alsobrooks’s campaign donors include Emily’s List, which aids Democratic women who support abortion rights, and former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) of Prince George’s County.
After choosing Alex Padilla in 2021 to fill the unexpired term of Harris, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said he wanted to appoint a Black woman if there’s another vacancy. “We have multiple names in mind,” he said at the time.
A brief hospitalization this week drew fresh attention to Newsom’s comment and the possibility that if Feinstein can’t complete her term, the governor could give Lee the advantage of incumbency. Or he could turn to a caretaker appointee with no plans to run in 2024.
Lee is competing in California’s single-ballot “Top 2″ March primary with candidates of all political affiliations, including House colleagues Adam Schiff (D) and Katie Porter (D), who are among the dominant fundraisers in Congress, and Lexi Reese (D), a former Google executive who’s partially self-funding her campaign.
Lee is getting outside help from a super-PAC called She Speaks For Me.
Lee, whose 25 years in the House make her one of the longest-serving Black women in the history of Congress, has emphasized an even longer personal history of progressive activism that dates to the early 1970s, when she was president of her college’s Black Student Union and invited Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first Black woman to serve in Congress, to speak on campus.
Lee said she has raised campaign money jointly with Alsobrooks and speaks frequently with Blunt Rochester. “We share stories, we catch up with each other, and we talk about what it’s going to be like being together in the Senate and some of the things we can do,” Lee said in an interview.
“It’s really a sister kind of connection we all have,” she said. “We all have barriers and systemic issues that we’re faced with, but together we’re much stronger and we can fight this in our campaigns together to support each other.”
In Michigan, there’s no Black congressional representation in Detroit, the nation’s most-populous Black-majority city.
Pugh, who has a background in public health and served as public health adviser in Black-majority Flint during its water-contamination crisis, said in an interview she’s running on a platform of “economic dignity for all” and was the top vote-getter in the 2014 and 2022 statewide elections to the education board.
“This is a pivotal time in history, and we do need that voice at the table because representation does matter,” she said.
With just $18,000 in cash on hand as July began, Pugh and Love ($11,000) start out with fewer resources than the front-runner, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who’s much better known and whose campaign reported banking $3.7 million. Pugh and Love are competing in a crowded primary that just added Hill Harper, an actor and author who’s also Black.
While it’s too soon to say how all of those campaigns will progress over the next 15 months, Blunt Rochester’s early dominance in Delaware makes it likely that January 2025 will bring a one-of-a-kind photo opportunity, as Vice President Harris formally swears in the next Black woman to the chamber.
Like all ex-senators, Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the Senate’s first Black woman, still has floor privileges, so she could be there, too.
“I think it’d be a great thing,” Moseley Braun, who served one term from 1993 to 1999, said in an interview. “The whole idea of a democracy is that you’ll have the voices of a lot of different people from different walks of life participating in the debates about their own lives.”
— With data visualization by Seemeen Hashem.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org