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Why So Many Black Candidates Struggled in the Midterm Elections

Republican-controlled redistricting maps have diluted the power of the Black vote in many states.

Voters line up to vote in Birmingham, Alabama, in November 2008. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Several Black candidates made history on election night: Democrat Wes Moore became Maryland’s first Black governor. Maxwell Frost, a 25-year-old progressive activist, won his bid to become the youngest member of Congress. And in Pennsylvania, voters elected their first Black U.S. representative, Democrat Summer Lee.

But for many more — particularly those whose names topped the ballot — victory remained out of reach on Nov. 8. It was a historically diverse election with a historically diverse electorate. And yet, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and governorships nationwide will be no more racially representative next year than they are now.

Of the five Black candidates who ran for governor, four conceded. Of the 13 Black major-party candidates who ran for U.S. Senate, nine have conceded. (Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina won reelection and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker are heading to a runoff.)

“We made a lot of progress, but it still wasn’t enough,” said Quentin James, founder and president of the Collective PAC, a Black-led political action committee.

While proud of the historic wins, James said the election highlighted some of the challenges around increasing Black representation in politics. He wonders if more support from the Democratic Party for candidates like Val Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina — Black women who ran for U.S. Senate — may have shifted the dynamics.

“It tells the story of Black America, one step forward and a half a step back,” James said.

Republicans appear positioned to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, though the results of several races are still outstanding. The Senate, however, is still up for grabs. It’s typical for the president’s party — Democrats, in this case — to lose seats and control of at least one chamber of Congress in midterm elections.

A Republican-controlled House is likely to prioritize investigations of the Biden administration and pushing back on its policies, experts say. Biden promised to advance legislation enshrining abortion rights next year if Democrats maintained control of Congress. Policies that Democrats believe would strengthen the democratic process, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, also were dependent on a Democratic majority.

Biden’s historic strides in diversifying the court system also could stall, as a Republican majority in the Senate can block his nominees.

“Having a Republican-controlled Congress or Senate would mean that the things Black folks care most about are likely not going to be prioritized,” Johnson, of New America, said. “We may actually see some steps backwards taken by Congress to erase some of the gains from the civil rights generation.”

But some of the issues most important to Black voters weren’t at the forefront of the Democratic Party’s messaging this election cycle, said Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American Studies at Emory. She pointed to matters like student loan debt and addressing crime in a way that doesn’t indict the Black community.

Instead, voters heard more about abortion rights in dialogues that overwhelming centered around white women, she said

“The issues Black voters wanted to hear about, they didn’t hear about,” said Dowe. “What is the messaging that resonates with Black voters versus white voters?”

Another significant barrier to increasing Black representation in Congress: gerrymandering. With the latest wave of redistricting,Black voters are entrenched in a system that will not allow them to elect the candidates of their choice, Dowe said.

In one case, Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, who served in Congress since 2017, lost his reelection bid to Republican Rep. Neal Dunn. Lawson’s majority-Black district had been divided by the Republican-led redistricting process in the statehouse, forcing him to run against Dunn in his own district.

Similar situations across the country have diluted the power of Black and brown voters, who are predominantly Democrats, even as their numbers have grown, said Emmitt Riley III, associate professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at DePauw University.

“When the 2020 census data was released, we thought the white population is shrinking,” Riley said. “But what offset this in terms of an electoral advantage is that Republicans control so many state legislatures, that they get the final say over what the maps look like. And they often favor them.”

Here’s a breakdown of the races Capital B has been watching. 

Congressional races


Warnock received 49.41% of votes cast in the Senate race Tuesday, to Walker’s 48.52%. In the historic contest between two Black candidates, Warnock and Walker’s positions differed widely on key issues from abortion to voting rights to the economy.

Warnock condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and has championed voting rights legislation, while Walker has supported Georgia’s six-week abortion ban and opposes voting rights protections.

With most precincts reporting, neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote, forcing the contest into a runoff in December. Read more about Georgia’s Senate race on our sister site, Capital B Atlanta.


Wisconsin Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes lost his bid to become the state’s first Black U.S. senator, in a tight race against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a climate change denier and Donald Trump ally. 

Barnes, an environmental justice advocate, ran a progressive campaign highlighting how systemic racism has defined life in a state that is 80% white. The 35-year-old has called for the country to pass the Green New Deal, a plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions; revitalize infrastructure; and offer climate reparations to Black, brown, and low-income communities. That would help reduce the adverse health outcomes for Black Wisconsinites, whose communities are exposed to 41% more harmful pollutants than their white counterparts. 

He has also advocated for Congress to codify abortion protections. In Wisconsin, Black residents received 35% of abortions last year, despite making up 6% of the state’s population. 

North Carolina

Hoping to become North Carolina’s first Black U.S. senator, Beasley instead lost her race against U.S. Rep. Ted Budd. 

During her campaign, Beasley promised health care would be one of her policy priorities. Since Roe v. Wade was overturned earlier this year, the state has seen the country’s highest increase in abortion procedures as patients travel from states that have banned or severely restricted abortions. 

Beasley believes abortion is a fundamental right, she told Capital B in March. Black women receive about a third of all abortions in the United States and are at least three times as likely as white women to die from pregnancy-related causes. 

As a former judge and chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Beasley said she would back criminal justice reform.  She supports boosting affordable housing and increasing the minimum wage.


Demings, a former Orlando police chief, lost her bid against incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for a seat in the U.S. Senate. 

Throughout her campaign, Demings focused on access to abortions in Florida. And immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, she released a statement saying, “We must protect Roe v. Wade in federal law. We cannot go back to a time when women were treated as second-class citizens who don’t have control over our own bodies.”

A former law enforcement officer and current gun owner, Demings backed closing loopholes in the country’s gun laws and banning assault weapons. For Black Americans, drive-by shootings are the mass casualty few are talking about, causing four times as many deaths as have been left by mass shootings in schools, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Assault weapons are often involved.


Charles Booker, a former Democratic member of Kentucky’s House of Representatives, lost his bid for the U.S. Senate, failing to unseat long-time incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. Booker would have been the first Black U.S. senator to represent Kentucky.

Booker was a regular at protests during the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd, and was once tear-gassed by police. As a statehouse representative, his constituents included the families of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee, who were killed by Louisville police officers. He ran on progressive issues, including reforming law enforcement, Medicare for All, and reproductive rights. But his policy agenda didn’t sway enough Kentucky voters to defeat Paul, who has served as senator since 2011.


Frost will become the first member from Generation Z in Congress after winning the race for Florida’s 10th Congressional District. The progressive Democrat beat Republican nominee Calvin Wimbish, a Black retired Army colonel, to represent the district, which includes Orlando. Frost will fill the seat currently held by Demings.

Frost campaigned on a progressive agenda, backing Medicare for All. A son of Cuban refugees, Frost is a vocal advocate for gun control and made mental health care and environmental justice central to his campaign.  

“If we want bold change on guns, reproductive health, and affordable housing, we can’t keep electing the same politicians,” Frost said in a campaign ad.

Gubernatorial races


While making history, Moore defeated far-right candidate Dan Cox, who attracted controversy after he was recorded accepting a gift from the white nationalist Proud Boys last month.

Moore is an author, Army veteran, and entrepreneur who stepped down from his role as the CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty organization, to run for governor. His running mate for lieutenant governor is Aruna Miller, a former state delegate. 

“What we see today in Maryland is that we can come together,” Moore said in a prepared speech on Tuesday night. “Maryland … you showed that if we stand divided, we cannot win — but if we stand united, we cannot lose.”

A large portion of Moore’s campaign focused on strengthening the economy to help boost poverty-stricken and working-class families. More affordable child care and early childhood education was also a priority for Moore, who founded Bridge Education Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships for first-generation college students.

Running to lead the state with the seventh-highest gun violence rate in the country, Moore ran on a platform of both police accountability and increasing resources for state law enforcement, as well as investing in community-based intervention programs. Under his leadership, the Robin Hood Foundation funded local and national research on the “long-term implications of crime, incarceration and criminal convictions, and that work led to the passage of transformative legislation and policy,” according to Moore’s campaign website.

“Our Maryland will be more competitive and more equitable. And we don’t have to choose between them: We can, and will, do both,” Moore said.


Stacey Abrams lost her rematch against GOP incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp.

Abrams gave a passionate concession speech around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday during a campaign watch party at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Downtown Atlanta, listing off quality of life problems Georgians have faced in recent years, which she said compelled her to run for governor for a second time.

“Our state has experienced one soul-crushing crisis after another over the past few years, but even during these trying times, the fighting spirit of Georgia has prevailed,” she said. “While I may not have crossed the finish line, that does not mean we will ever stop running for a better Georgia.”


Deidre DeJear, who sought to become Iowa’s first Black female governor, lost to incumbent Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. 

DeJear made promises on the campaign trail to work on issues disproportionately affecting Black communities. In a state where 17% of Black kids live in a child care desert, DeJear said she would increase access to early childhood education and employ more child care providers to make up for the 40% loss of providers over the last five years.

She also planned to improve policies that foster more economic opportunities for youth, in hopes of reducing the number of Black people incarcerated in the state.  Oftentimes, “the state has to compete with the streets,” DeJear said last month in a live Q&A with Capital B.

Another key issue for DeJear: maternal health care. At a young age, DeJear’s mother died three days after giving birth to her sister. In Iowa, Black women are six times more likely to die during or shortly after childbirth than white women, according to a report from the Iowa Department of Public Health. To improve maternal health, DeJear said she would make health care more affordable and hire more nurses and doctors across the state.


Democratic nominee Chris Jones failed to become the state’s first Black governor, losing to former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In the Democratic primary earlier this year, Jones, a Morehouse College grad, defeated Anthony Bland and three other opponents, receiving over 70% of the vote.

Jones’ campaign focused on increasing resources in the state’s public schools, mitigating the impact climate change will have on the economy, and defending abortion rights. His policy message to voters was dubbed “PB&J”: preschool, broadband, and jobs.

At the core of Jones’ jobs promise was the state’s agricultural industry, which is set to face some of the worst impacts from climate change in the coming decade. Climate change will intensify issues already faced by Black farmers in the state, who have been impacted by a long-documented history of discrimination and violence. Jones hoped to revitalize the industry through sustainable practices “to create healthy soils while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” 


Yolanda Flowers made history as the first Black woman nominated for governor from a major political party — but failed to secure a win against incumbent Republican Gov. Kay Ivey in the Southern red state. 

Flowers centered her campaign on the idea of “reconstruction” from education and health care to criminal justice and the economy. She said she would push to solve pay inequities in the workplace. She also supported more funding for public education to increase teacher pay and build safe, clean school infrastructure, including clean water and air conditioning. 

Across the country, Black communities have borne the brunt of water issues, making it unsafe to drink. And Black workers face disparities in income earnings. 

Other key races and issues


Voters in Maryland made history Tuesday night when they elected Anthony Brown to be the state’s next attorney general. He is the first Black person to hold the position.

Brown received an endorsement from his predecessor, Democrat Brian Frosh, who announced his retirement in October 2021 after holding the position since 2015. The attorney general’s office is tasked with investigating deadly police use of force incidents, and enforcing federal laws through criminal and civil courts. 

Brown ran against far-right conservative Michael Anthony Peroutka, a former Anne Arundel County Council member who ran a controversial campaign often met with protests and is a former member of the white nationalist League of the South.  

Brown’s campaign echoed many of Moore’s wish-list items. He campaigned on combating gun violence, bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community, reproductive and voting rights, and criminal justice reform. Brown once served as lieutenant governor under former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Slavery measures

Four states — Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon and Vermont — voted to amend their constitution to close the “slavery loophole,” an exception clause that legalized the treatment of convicted individuals like slaves. Amending the constitutions could limit the practice of paying little or no wage to incarcerated people involved in labor while behind bars. 

Polling showed the measure failed in Louisiana, but the results were expected by voting rights activists, who were concerned that the wording of the ballot question would cause confusion.

The Abolish Slavery National Network expressed sadness and “disappointment” about the failure of the Louisiana measure. Bianca Tylek, the founder of Worth Rises and an advocate for amending the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, said that Louisiana voters were set up to fail because of misinformation campaigns and poor word choices on the ballot. 

After Nebraska changed its constitution in 2020, at least one county jail started enforcing a salary of up to $30 a week, the Lincoln Journal Star reported. Prior to Tuesday’s elections, 19 states had the slavery loophole on their books.