This is the Year of Color in America, with African-American, Latinx and Asian-American candidates running for office in unprecedented numbers. But financial support from Democratic donors hasn’t always matched the grassroots enthusiasm for a new hue of political representation. That is Ben Jealous’ struggle.
The former NAACP director and Bernie Sanders surrogate has emerged as the winner of an eight-person Democratic primary for Maryland governor, but now has just $ 386,000 cash on hand. That is 24 times less cash than the Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan — and that’s in a state with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Sure, Hogan has had four years to pack his war chest. For his part, Jealous insists he will have enough money on Election Day and that it isn’t race but the challenge of taking on a strong incumbent that is keeping blue wallets from opening up. Surveys show Hogan as the nation’s second most popular governor, and Jealous had to expend money to win that crowded party primary. “This is a challenge no Democrat has faced in Maryland,” Jealous admits.
But Jealous isn’t alone, and the role race plays is becoming harder to ignore for many analysts. The Democratic Party has been criticized for not backing candidates of color in primaries against party incumbents, as bankrollers chose to stay away from candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Ayanna Pressley in Boston before the two women of color led stunning upsets over high-ranking House Democrats. Yet the battle for candidates of color is particularly steep in other gubernatorial races like Jealous’, even as Democratic fundraising has broadly outpaced Republican spending. For every Stacey Abrams, the Georgia woman vying to be the nation’s first African-American female governor who has had no trouble raising cash, there is a David Garcia — the Hispanic college professor in Arizona who raised about $ 1 million and won the nomination despite trailing his primary opponent by a quarter million. He now faces another uphill fundraising battle against incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey, who has raised more than four times as much as him.
We saw at the very beginning the hesitation from the establishment to support candidates of color who were running.
Quentin James, co-founder, the Collective
In Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won an upset to become the nominee for governor after raising $ 4 million total and spending just half a million on TV ads — while one of his opponents spent $ 8 million and another spent $ 20 million papering the airwaves. Some saw Gillum as less electable because of his embrace of a fully progressive platform, but lurking behind that doubt was also the question of how on-the-fence Floridians would react to the first Black nominee for governor in state history.
“We saw at the very beginning the hesitation from the establishment to support candidates of color who were running,” says Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective, a left-leaning political action committee funding Black candidates, adding it was stunning to see how those candidates have won nominations despite that financial disadvantage.
For sure, there are instances where Democratic Party funders have supported candidates of color. Emily’s List endorsed Abrams in Georgia and Deidre DeJear in the race for Iowa secretary of state. “It has changed. You see folks recognizing the need to support a diverse array of candidates,” says Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC.
But early in the midterm election cycle, Democrats heaped attention on White women with military backgrounds, such as Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey and Amy McGrath in Kentucky, in ads that went viral. “The problem with that is a ridiculous love fest with Democratic leaders trying to convince moderate and Republican, mostly White, voters to vote for Democrats,” James says. “There’s this misconception that this is 1988, and Jesse Jackson is running. That’s not where we are now. Barack Obama got more White voters than Hillary Clinton.”
Each of those states — Maryland, Florida and Arizona — either lean Democrat or are toss-ups in statewide elections, which may convince donors to rally around those candidates of color now that the primaries are over and Election Day approaches. Then again, their hesitation may be more about concern the races aren’t winnable, despite those states being competitive generally. Only Gillum is a favorite right now, leading by four points in Florida, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average. Garcia is behind in the polls, by about six points on average, while Jealous is behind by more than 20 points in a recent Goucher College poll.
“The party has a bias toward battleground states, I get it,” Jealous says. “But we’ve known for a long time that the day we have a true 50-state strategy is the day we will move ahead, full power, full speed.”
Such fundraising disadvantages can cripple candidates and deflect from their message to voters. For instance, the Hogan campaign took advantage of their funds and launched three major ads on education issues the day after Labor Day, traditionally a starting block of sorts for election. One of the ads took credit for a plan to ensure casino taxes went to education funding, a plan the ads called the “Hogan lockbox.” However, as fact-checkers have stated, the policy was actually proposed by Jealous and the Democrats more than a year before.
Without money to combat those ads, the Jealous campaign has been forced to watch as Hogan co-opts one of his major campaign issues. But money isn’t everything — Jealous notes that Hogan himself was outraised when he won the governorship in 2014. “We will win this general the same way we won the primary: build a bigger ground army, turn out voters and turn on our ads at the moment the voters need to hear them in order for us to win — and not before,” Jealous says.
He has confidence in his ability to turn things around, considering he started his primary race in fourth place before winning by 10 points. But will Democratic donors have enough confidence to get him across the finish line? That’s the question left for candidates of color in the final weeks leading to the November midterms.
Correction: This article originally described Randy Bryce, a congressional candidate in Wisconsin, as White. He his half-white, half- Mexican.