Increasingly, Republicans are going after Black candidates for higher office. The GOP has fielded multiple Black nominees for statewide office and encouraged South Carolina Senator Tim Scott to run for president. Although these are mainly cynical attempts to peel away some Black support from Democrats, these developments do pose a threat to the party—but not for the reason many pundits think.
For a party whose political power is based on stoking white fear and resentment, the trend is certainly notable at first blush. In just the past three years, Republicans have nominated Black candidates for vitally important contests: US Senate in Michigan (John James in 2020) and Georgia (Herschel Walker in 2022), and the party’s standard-bearer in this year’s Kentucky gubernatorial contest (Daniel Cameron). In 2021, Winsome Sears won her race for Virginia lieutenant governor. And now, on top of all that, Tim Scott has thrown his hat into the ring for the 2024 presidential race.
Scott’s candidacy has captured the attention of many reporters in the mainstream media. For example, The New York Times recently published a roundtable on the implications of his bid. But most of these analyses incorrectly diagnose what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the true threat is to Democrats. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg is a good example of this misunderstanding, writing in an op-ed last month that “at a time when the Democratic Party is losing Black men, a Tim Scott nomination would be a nightmare for Joe Biden.”
It is important to set the record straight that Democrats are not, in fact, losing support from Black men even when the GOP is running Black candidates. A cursory glance at the results from their recent races affirms this fact: In both the Georgia and Michigan Senate races, the Democratic nominee secured 90 percent of the vote, even when, in Michigan, the Republican opponent was a Black man.
All available electoral data continues to affirm that Black men are the second-most-Democratic demographic group in the country, second only to Black women.
The confusion over the Black vote seems to be coming from the fact that the margin by which Democrats have won Black men shrank in the Trump era. While Trump lost by 69 percent among Black males in 2016, that margin fell to 60 percent in 2020. That shift, however, does not mean what reporters like Goldberg think it means.
Black voters are not switching to the Republican Party. Republicans are just doing a better job of increasing voter turnout among infrequent voters. Reporters often apply this same faulty reasoning to Latino voters, which I wrote about last year. As I pointed out there, Trump’s “gains happened among voters usually on the sidelines of politics.”
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And therein lies the real challenge and difficulty for Democrats. The greatest threat to Biden’s reelection is not that Black voters will throng the polling places to embrace Scott; It’s that those infrequent voters will not vote at all.
For decades, Democrats have failed to resolve a fundamental dilemma: Black people are their most reliable and strongest supporters, but fear of alienating white voters mutes their full-throated support for Black equality. This ambivalence is most profound when it comes to addressing one of the most important issues of all—the racial wealth gap.
The average white family in America has six times more wealth than the average Black family. This is, of course, the result of centuries of government-sanctioned and -enforced public policies, from slavery to sharecropping to redlining to racial restrictions in the GI Bill and New Deal. Despite this reality—even after the murder of George Floyd and many other innocent Black people—Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress at the time, could not summon the courage or resolve to pass a bill that would simply study the issue of reparations. Biden doesn’t need any congressional support to establish a Presidential Commission to examine reparations, but he has failed to take this basic step.
With a new race looming, the challenge for Democrats will be inspiring and mobilizing Black voters. The default posture of the party will be to tiptoe through the policy landscape and unleash a fire hose of spending targeting white people to try to convince them that Democrats still care about them. From 2016 to 2020, Democrats have devoted the lion’s share of their election spending on communicating with white voters, at the expense of working to inspire Black ones.
The GOP’s flirtation with Black candidates is something that Democrats should absolutely take seriously, and they should be alert that Republicans, while cynical and shameless, are nonetheless tinkering with their electoral formula. The most effective response would be to intensify the fight for true racial equality and signal unequivocal support for the Black struggle for justice. In doing so, Democrats would reinforce the cornerstone of their winning coalition, at which time Republicans would return to their regularly scheduled programming of running white candidates who come from the tradition of voicing white resentment.