What will it take for Black women to break through in Senate and governors’ races?

OPINION: Stacey Abrams, Cheri Beasley and Val Demings were qualified, well-funded and national rising stars in their party. But for Black women, it is a familiar story—a double burden of both race and gender at play.

(L-R): Stacey Abrams (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images); Val Demings (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images); Cheri Beasley (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Let’s get right to it: It was a bad night for high-profile, nationally known Black female statewide candidates across America on election night 2022 — except for one Black woman, Andrea Campbell, who became the first Black female attorney general in Massachusetts history

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., lost her U.S. Senate bid by a wide margin to incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “red wave” in Florida. Then we saw Stacey Abrams lose, for a second time, by a wide margin to Republican Governor Brian Kemp in her bid to become the first Black female governor in U.S. history. And most heartbreaking of all to me was seeing my sorority sister and former North Carolina justice, Cheri Beasley, lose to the Trump-backed MAGA candidate Ted Budd to replace retiring GOP Senator Richard Burr. Let me break down what I see as the underlying issue as to why Black women still struggle to win statewide races for governor and the U.S. Senate.

First, let’s start with some facts. Only two Black women have ever been elected to the Senate — Vice President Kamala Harris and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who was the first to be elected in 1992. It was an 18-year drought between Harris and Braun. And from last night’s results, we will have another two years—the 2024 election—before that history will change. And no Black woman has ever been elected governor in these United States. Abrams was our best hope for both 2018 and 2022. 

I think it’s easy to say that three Black women lost statewide elections in the Deep South because they are Black. I think that is lazy. I am not, however, saying race doesn’t matter. It does. The polling data in Georgia’s governor’s race reveals an unmistakable truth that really bothers me as a Black woman: White women voted heavily for Republican Brian Kemp. They did not support Abrams, and she lost white men overwhelmingly. Her biggest supporters were, as expected, Black men and women and other groups of color.

I think there are a few things Black women can do to better position ourselves if we want to win statewide races in the near future. First, it’s helpful to live in places that align with your politics. That does not mean you cannot run and work to change the politics in your city, town or state. It just means that you have to find a group of like-minded people who believe in the same values and are willing to fight for them. Although voters in the 21st century are demanding more diverse representation in Congress and state legislatures, candidates who are women of color often lag badly behind in political races.

Secondly, it helps to have a plan and a good support system. Abrams had this in 2018 for sure; if not for her voter registration efforts and get-out-the-vote ground game in 2020, I doubt Joe Biden would be president. Women candidates in general and women of color need to be well funded early on, and they need a strong apparatus to help introduce them to voters in their state and engage them thoughtfully with TV ads and at local events well before Election Day. And third, they need a message that connects the fact that just because you are a woman of color, it is not a barrier to white voter support but instead a bridge to being able to work across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic divides. 

Abrams had all of that and still lost. So, the truth is, we have to keep hitting that glass ceiling until we crack it wide open. With respect to Val Demings, we knew that she would have an uphill battle in Florida. She ran a great race. She’s a former police chief in Orlando, but she did not get the support of the “blue” — Senator Rubio did. This was a huge red flag for me. It let me know how far Black women still have to go when it comes to getting the support of even groups they come from that are still predominantly white and male. Demings was literally “one of them,” yet they still chose the guy who never wore a police officer’s uniform. Classic gender discrimination in a very male-dominated profession. 

As for Beasley, I think she could have won, but she needed earlier support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She was well-known in the state as a former chief justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. She lost by little more than three points in a purplish state. But going back to my first point: What defeated her, in the end, was the Trump forces who were simply not ready for a Black woman to represent them in the U.S Senate. Let’s face it; it’s still tough for a Black woman to win statewide in the Deep South for all the reasons I mentioned. Both Demings and Beasley were qualified, well-funded and national rising stars in their party. But when we look at the final vote tallies, it tells a familiar story. For Black women, it is a double burden of both race and gender at play. It is the never-ending story of our lives. We just have to keep running until we win. 

At the end of the day, all three of these amazing women have nothing to regret. They ran great campaigns, and they created great future platforms for themselves. They also put one more crack in those glass ceilings called the U.S. Senate and the governors’ mansions. Let’s hope we learn some practical lessons from this 2022 cycle and help elect Black women statewide in 2024 and beyond.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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