“This may be a time when we can level the playing field,” said Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I think the black contestants proved more than ever that we were talented, but we didn’t have the resources to compete… that’s the future. That’s what I think Dr. [Martin Luther] King and his generation have always imagined.
While individual black applicants have shown strong fundraising performances in the past, there may never have been a quarter where so many people have raised so many. Warnock’s main Republican challenger, former football star Herschel Walker, raised $ 3.8 million in his first five weeks on the campaign trail. In North Carolina, former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, raised $ 1.5 million during the fundraising quarter that ran from July to the end of September.
Glynda Carr, founder and CEO of Higher Heights, which supports black Democratic candidates, points to Demings and Beasley as “proof of concept.”
“We continue to prove that we are the best ROI,” Carr said. “We are seeing more and more donors and institutions supporting black women at an early stage. And so we are moving in the right direction.
The remarkable numbers weren’t just confined to the South. In Kentucky, Charles Booker, a former state lawmaker fresh out of a Democratic Senate primary defeat in 2020 in which he was financially overwhelmed, raised $ 1.7 million. And in Wisconsin, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes raised $ 1.1 million in his overcrowded Senate primary, garnering more donors – both large and small – than two of his wealthy white primary opponents, who needed huge personal loans to break the million dollar mark.
” I think the [candidate] pipeline is definitely there. But what wasn’t there before is that kind of interest in funding African American candidates and seeing where it goes, ”said Kevin Harris, Democratic strategist and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.. “It never happened. “
After losing Senate nominations in 2018 and 2020 in Mississippi, the former Democratic lawmaker Mike Espy can attest to the difficulties faced by black candidates in the past. His response when told of the new numbers: “They’re going to need it. ”
After his 2020 loss to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith – he lost 10 percentage points, relatively close for a Democrat from Mississippi – Espy independently commissioned a data company to analyze his performance. The results of that study, which Espy shared with POLITICO, revealed that despite a surge in voter engagement in the South, Mississippi only increased its voter registration by 1%.
To start building momentum for the next black Democrat to run statewide, Espy has shared his entire donor contact list with the state party for free.
“I always had to break through so many doors and push that rock up the hill like Sisyphus,” Espy said, adding that if he had more financial resources he could be in the Senate right now.
“If there had been funds to identify this deficit very early in January,” said Espy, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton, “I could start a voter registration campaign. I could have done the sort of thing to engage voters and convince them that it was in their best interest to go and register. ”
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former candidates, strategists and party activists suggest that there is no single explanation for the most recent fundraising results.
It helps that many black candidates challenge high profile and highly polarizing opponents, a surefire way to fill the campaign coffers. The 2022 candidate crop also builds on recent successes from prominent black candidates who came before them – including former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Warnock and Stacey Abrams, including the Action Committee. Fair Fight policy has raised over $ 100 million. since his 2018 loss to Georgia GOP Governor Brian Kemp.
But they are also benefiting from increased attention to the effects of systemic racism in the wake of the protests following the 2020 George Floyd murder in Minneapolis.
“We have seen a lot of very good black candidates, during this period, with an increase in donations from candidates like Charles Booker,” said Nabilah Islam, strategist and former DNC fundraiser. “I feel like there is definitely white guilt out there. ”
As much as anything else though, the exceptional fundraising – accumulated in a lean year, months before the campaigns began in earnest – was fueled by a flood of money from small donors online. Many applicants who haven’t had access to large donor networks or high value-added events are suddenly able to fill their treasury with thousands of small digital contributions.
Booker, which boasts that 98 percent of its third quarter harvest came from local donors and included 55,000 contributions, said his early fundraising strength allowed him to solidify his status as frontrunner in the Kentucky Democratic primary – an advantage he didn’t have in 2020, when the party merged early behind Amy McGrath. He plans to invest in advertising and a more targeted field operation to engage rural voters. And now he can afford a second tour bus to join them.
“We need to see it more as an investment. If you think about the work that has been done in Georgia, this is the organization that won us these Senate seats, ”Booker said. “We are working on building long-term infrastructure. And so the money, instead of putting it all in these national ads, which you have to do, but we have to invest more on the ground. “
Booker, like many others, sought advice from DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, who raised more than $ 100 million in his unsuccessful 2020 challenge against Republican Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham. Harrison’s fundraising prowess has made him a key resource for other black Senate candidates, to whom he offers fundraising tips and staff suggestions.
“I share this information with campaigns that call and ask, you know, ‘How did you do it?’ Harrison said.
In these conversations, the DNC chairman details fundraising best practices and helps them develop a campaign strategy – one of his former senior advisers is now helping run the Demings campaign.
Harrison points out that until now, black candidates have not been the first choice of the party leadership in competitive primaries. His own experience spawned a powerful strategy: to focus on digital advertising and social media to bypass fundraising circles that black applicants were once excluded from.
“Part of the secret sauce for me – and I think Lindsey Graham got that from the Republican side – was how you build a grassroots donor base. How do you tap into this type of energy to fund your campaign? Harrison said. “There are techniques and things you can do. And you can see the difference.
Despite all the progress suggested by recent fundraising results, there is no guarantee that the midterm elections will sweep away a class of black senators. Booker’s booty in Kentucky, for example, was less than half the $ 4 million incumbent GOP Senator Rand Paul took – and it’s been years since a Kentucky Democrat even managed to pull it off. losing a Senate race over there at single digits.
In the race for open seats in the Pennsylvania Senate, where five candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, the two black candidates – Malcolm Kenyatta and Sharif Street – have been greatly outraged. On the Republican side, Kathy Barnette, MAGA candidate and accustomed to conservative media, also brought up the rear.
“We still have a huge under-representation challenge right now… we have to have one black woman,” said Quentin James, founder and president of the PAC Collective, which supports progressive black candidates who come forward and has endorsed three candidates. black Democrats in the non-incumbent Senate. “And so we have some catching up to do. ”
The PAC Collective and a handful of black political operatives organized and fundraised on behalf of black candidates to prepare for this moment. In addition to helping train and recruit staff, the organizations lobbied major donors on behalf of the candidates, in an effort to challenge the stereotype that black politicians will not represent the interests of all of their constituents.
“I think there has been a fundamental shift in the way of thinking who can win the election, and now it’s understood, it’s not the boring old white anymore,” said Islam, the former collector of DNC funds. “You know, we need someone who’s exciting. And I think that’s why a lot of black candidates like Val Demings, Warnock, even Herschel Walker and Tim Scott are doing so well.