Why you should care
Rearranging boundaries backfires: The U.S. midterms saw Black Democrats win big in mostly White districts.
An NFL linebacker who worked in the Obama White House. A nurse with a pre-existing heart condition. The Harvard-educated lawyer with a rap album and a stage name. The teacher of the year who decided Congress should be her new classroom.
These are just a few of the men and women who sparked history with their candidacies in what some have dubbed the Year of Color. And while their victories will already lead to a record of at least 55 African-American lawmakers in the House of Representatives, there is another twist.
Each of the nine new Black members of Congress, all of them Democrats, won in mostly White districts.
The trend is noteworthy because Republican gerrymandering has typically sought to pack African-American votes together, making it very difficult for non-White candidates to win in the non-packed congressional districts. Democrats draw districts to their favor too, but typically with a reverse strategy of spreading voters of color across multiple districts.
Yet women like Lucy McBath, a 58-year-old mother whose son died due to gun violence, and Lauren Underwood, a 32-year-old former senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, were able to flip Republican seats in majority-White districts. “I was steeled against racism. I was ready for it,” Underwood, who won a district nearly 86 percent White and only about 3 percent Black, told Good Morning America. “What I found instead was sexism, and folks being a little uncomfortable with my age.”
Underwood answered those concerns, beating six White men to win the Democratic primary before defeating four-term Rep. Randy Hultgren with 52 percent of the vote. While her general election was close, many of the new Black representatives-elect saw their biggest challenges not in the general, but in the primaries for their blue districts. Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley had to oust Democrat incumbent Michael Capuano before winning an uncontested general election. While her district is one-third White, it is a majority-minority district when combining Black, Latino and Asian voters together. Pressley noted that coalition, which she had built through her past elections, was key to her victory. “We were down by 14 points, according to the polls, and we won by 17,” she says. “One, those polls were not capturing the electorate we were expanding — but two, you cannot poll transformation.”
University of Colorado regent Joe Neguse, the son of Eritrean immigrants, resoundingly won his primary with 65 percent of the vote before beating a Republican by 26 percentage points in November. The 32-year-old noted that his district, which is 91 percent White, had proven itself to be “incredibly inclusive.” After all, his predecessor in the post was Jared Polis, the openly gay congressman who just became Colorado’s governor-elect. “Irrespective of one’s race or religion, perhaps what you look like or if your parents have accents like mine do, fundamentally we care about the same things,” Neguse says.
Still, some of those future representatives believed the focus on the racial makeup of their districts was a distraction — one not asked of White candidates in majority-minority districts. “In a new era, where we are (more) focused on talking about what’s at stake for the people we represent, I hope that kind of question is a question we never ask again,” says Ilhan Omar, whose district is 67 percent White and who this election cycle became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
The issues most important for voters included health care and protecting benefits programs such as Social Security, followed by concerns over campaign finance, minimum wage and tax laws. The Progressive Change Institute studied which issues the incoming Democratic freshman class ran on: Sixty-four percent supported Medicare or a Medicare option for all and expanding Social Security. But of the nine new Black Democrats in Congress, eight campaigned on those stances, says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Voters want to see boldness from House Democrats — not small-bore, technocratic thinking.”
From being able to pay for medical expenses to making sure the children of immigrants can attend school, “my sense is that minority candidates do well by talking about the issues that impact every person,” Neguse says.