Last week, Democratic voters in three states nominated a trio of attention-grabbing Senate candidates: a Black man who disavows moderate policies, a towering, tattooed lieutenant governor who insists on wearing shorts, and a Black woman who spent her career in the judiciary.
The choices could signal a bigger change coming for Democrats.
A party once accustomed to nominating mostly white, straight-laced men to run in major Senate races is taking a markedly different approach this year, backing candidates across the electoral map with different profiles than their predecessors. It’s a tack more inclusive of women, African Americans and unconventional politicians — the type party leaders and voters alike once feared were unelectable in competitive states.
But spurred by the recent success of unorthodox candidates — and an internal conviction that Democrats need a more diverse slate of elected officials — the party as a whole has begun changing its calculation in this year’s primaries.
“Voters think that politics as usual has failed, so maybe it’s time to try something else,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “And these candidates represent that.”
Their ascension means that Democrats will be relying on a lineup of candidates that looks very different than in previous election cycles, in a year where Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to take control of the legislative chamber amid a political environment that’s already favorable to them.
In Balaban’s commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for instance, Democratic voters last week chose Lt. Gov. John Fetterman as their Senate nominee in an open-seat race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.
Fetterman, who sports a bushy goatee and prefers to wear shorts instead of a traditional suit and tie (even when he meets the president), easily bested his nearest competitor, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate-leaning congressman who argued he had a more proven track record of winning over middle-of-the-road voters in tough races. Fetterman, for his part, is perhaps best known for his strong advocacy of legalizing marijuana.
Democratic voters in Kentucky, meanwhile, backed Charles Booker, a former state lawmaker politically aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders. And in North Carolina, party members nominated Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who became the first Black woman to be nominated for Senate in the state. She won her primary in a landslide after another challenger, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, dropped out of the race last year, urging the party to unite behind Beasley.
Beasley will almost certainly be one of two African-American women who win a Democratic nomination for Senate this year, with Rep. Val Demings expected to win the party’s primary in Florida. Their dual nominations will be the first time since 2014 — when Democrats nominated Joyce Dickerson in South Carolina and Connie Johnson in Oklahoma — that the party has nominated more than one Black woman for Senate in a single election cycle.
And officials at Collective PAC, a political group dedicated to increasing representation of African-Americans in elected office, say Beasley and Demings will be the first Black women to be nominated for Senate races in battleground states since Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois in 1998. Moseley Braun was the first Black woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate, joined only by now-Vice President Kamala Harris after she won a Senate seat in California in 2016.
Democratic leaders say the party has recognized, even belatedly, that nominating candidates who look and talk alike wasn’t working.
“We just can’t check boxes with the same 50-year-old white guy who is a businessman,” said Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic state lawmaker from South Carolina.
The change in the party’s approach is evident when comparing the current slate of nominees and favorites to the candidates the party nominated in 2016, the last time this batch of Senate seats was up for election. In the marquee battlegrounds of Arizona, New Hampshire, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, and Kentucky, the party didn’t nominate a single Black candidate.
This year, in those same seats, the party could nominate as many as four, including incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who faces re-election after winning a special election for the seat in 2020. (Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor and a Black man, is seeking the party’s nomination for Senate there.)
Democrats point to Warnock’s success that year — he won a closely watched Senate race over Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler — as part of the reason a more diverse set of candidates has emerged this year. His success helped change perceptions about what types of candidates can win marquee competitive races, they say.
“The more we get people elected into office — women, people of color, the people who don’t fit the standard mold you’re talking about — the more likely they’re seen as the next candidate,” said Christina Reynolds, a top official at EMILY’s List, which endorses Democratic women who support abortion rights, including Demings and Beasley.
Warnock’s success was paired with the failure that year of Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham in North Carolina. Cunningham was once seen as the safe choice for voters in the state but lost after the revelation he had sent a series of intimate text messages to a woman who was not his wife.
Cunningham’s loss helped persuade some in the party to back Beasley over Jackson, strategists in the state say, as the party looked for a different formula for success.
“There was a profile burnout based on the results of 2020,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in the state. “And it was like, are we going to do the same thing again?”