President Barack Obama’s historic election shattered a racial glass ceiling for the nation’s highest office, but African-Americans are still struggling to win other major offices.
No African-American is expected to win a governor’s seat in 2012, and the U.S. Senate is likely to remain without a single black member after this November’s elections. State senator C. Anthony Muse lost in last week’s Maryland primary against incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin (D), eliminating virtually the only serious black Senate candidate for 2012.
What that means is that Massachusetts Deval Patrick is likely to remain the only African-American in the country who is a governor or a senator, two offices that are powerful, widely-coveted and traditional stepping-stones to the presidency. That would be two less than when Obama started his presidency in 2009, as then, along with Patrick, New York’s David Paterson (governor) and Illinois’ Roland Burris (senator) were still in office.
Experts say the next wave of black candidates after Obama is likely still at least a few years away from emerging, because many of would-be candidates haven’t yet reached the stage where they are ready to run for such large offices.
“We’re looking at a generation before we see some turnover in some of these senate seats,” said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University.
In some ways, it’s simply a matter of numbers.
“Only 33 senators are up,” in a given election cycle said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that specializes in African-American issues. “In half the states where there are black people — states like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia (those states) are very racially polarized and black candidates won’t be elected.”
To some extent, this is not surprising, as Obama’s election could not, in four years, overturn decades of challenges for black candidates. Though African-Americans make up over 12 percent of the nation’s population, only six blacks have served in the Senate since the nation’s founding. There have also been only a handful of black governors since the 1870s. (There are currently two Hispanic senators and only one Asian-American senator)
The exorbitant costs of running a statewide election coupled with African-Americans relatively small numbers in many states means the odds are against blacks winning such offices as senator, governor or other higher state offices, political experts say.
“The fundraising thing is the first thing,” said Neal, adding that blacks struggle to “draw enough interest so that they can raise enough money to push through a campaign.”
Viable black candidates are often told to “wait their time,” Neal said, a time that never comes. At a recent panel discussion at Harvard University, former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010, said he and other potential black Democratic candidates for higher office rarely get support from the Democratic establishments in their states, who cast them as “unelectable.”
He noted even Barack Obama was not the favorite of establishment figures when he started his race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 2003.
“The Democratic Party needs to live up to its ideals on racial inclusiveness,” Davis said.
He added, when leading white Democrats are approached about supporting blacks for statewide office, they will ” give you 50 reasons” why such candidacies are virtually impossible, he said.
In addition, in places like the Deep South where there are higher numbers of African Americans, the Republican Party dominates, and even white Democrats struggle to win.
“The Republican Party in the South is the white people’s party,” Bositis said. “For minorities they have no alternative but the Democratic Party.”
About 10 percent of the U.S. House is black. But most of those lawmakers tend to represent heavily-minority districts.
And those lawmakers rarely run for the Senate or serve in statewide offices, in part because representing a majority-black district often means they take liberal stands that are difficult to defend in a statewide election. Both Davis (Ala.) and Harold Ford (Tenn.) lost recent races as they struggled to balance between moderate and liberal stands in southern states where Democrats of any color often lose statewide races.
Still, there are some areas of the country and candidates that seem to defy the odds. In 1989, Douglas Wilder won the gubernatorial race in Virginia, and 17 years later, Patrick was elected in Massachusetts, which has a black population of only 6 percent.
Experts say states like California, Illinois and New York are generally the places where black politicians are likely to emerge. Those states have sizable black populations, but there are not like the South, which has more racially-polarized voting and a more conservative bloc of states. The last two blacks elected to the Senate (Obama and Carol Moseley-Braun) were both from Illinois.
And, as states like Georgia and Virginia experience a boom in Latino and black populations, the shade of representation could skew a bit darker.
The politicians many experts highlight are Kamala Harris, who was elected in 2010 as California’s first black attorney general, and longtime Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Both are expected to run for either governor or U.S. Senate in the next several years, as is Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, another Democrat.
But some experts say the small number of black Republicans in office could also emerge as major candidates. Unlike black Democrats, black Republicans tend to get elected in majority-white areas, meaning they often have a broader coalition of voters who have already supported them when they seek a higher office.
In a recent piece, the American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie noted that South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, one of only two black Republicans in the House, is already a logical candidate for higher office.
“As a Republican aligned with the Tea Party, he is in tune with his district and with the majority of South Carolinians, who elected a Tea Party governor in 2010 and revere Senator Jim DeMint,” Bouie wrote. “Scott’s district isn’t particularly affluent, but as an up-and-comer in state politics, he has access to important donors and activists.”
Follow Grio political contributor Halimah Abdullah on Twitter @HAbdullahdcnews