Black candidates keep losing winnable races — and say the Democratic Party may be why

The candidates themselves raised boatloads. But they were outgunned by GOP outside organizations.

Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes hugs a supporter after conceding to Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

Few Democratic candidates suffered more heartbreak on election night than Mandela Barnes. The Wisconsin Democrat, having been largely left for dead politically, came within 1 percentage point of ousting Sen. Ron Johnson.

But for Barnes’ aides, it was something more than a missed opportunity — it was a painful example of how candidates of color continue to face questions about their ability to win. Had the campaign gotten just a wee bit more air cover from super PACs at the race’s critical closing juncture, they reasoned, Barnes would have won.

“There’s no question in my mind,” said Kory Kozloski, Barnes’ campaign manager. “If we were able to communicate at the same levels as Ron Johnson, Mandela Barnes would be in the United States Senate today.”

The postmortems that Barnes’ aides undertook were similar to the ones that advisers to other high-profile Black Senate candidates conducted after an election in which Democrats fared well, but those contenders fell short. While there are numerous reasons why none of the Black candidates trying to flip seats won, they’ve gravitated to a common theme, one that’s more personal than a typical after-action campaign report: Black candidates needed more trust — and, with it, funding — from the Democratic Party’s infrastructure.

“Hindsight is always 20/20 and there’s no doubt that Cheri Beasley and Val Demings were in tough races, but given the right investment they both could have won,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat and chair emeritus of the Congressional Black Caucus, referencing the two Democratic Black women who ran for Senate in North Carolina and Florida.

Lee may be speaking out of self-interest. She has told colleagues that she plans to run for the Senate. And in Demings’ case, it’s unclear how more funding could have overcome a decisive 16-point loss. But her analysis overall of the 2022 results was echoed by 10 elected officials, strategists and campaign operatives who spoke to POLITICO. They don’t just see the issue as one of campaign money but, rather, of Black candidates getting the same institutional support as their white peers.

“Generally speaking what I’ve seen since I’ve gotten here is not enough Black unity across the country, from a political perspective, and not a strong enough Black political infrastructure to support Black candidates across the country,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who is Black. “That’s something that’s very concerning to me. And something I want to use my voice and platform to help build going forward.”

At the beginning of the midterm election cycle, many Democrats were optimistic about the Black Senate contenders on the ballot, even with the historical challenges the party faced given that it controlled the White House and Congress.

Past high-profile Black candidates — like Sen. Raphael Warnock, Stacey Abrams, Jaime Harrison and Barack Obama — had been some of the party’s star fundraisers. And there was a sense that the long-standing belief that Black candidates couldn’t compete financially with their white counterparts had finally been put aside.

The numbers ended up supporting that theory. Barnes raised $42 million compared to Johnson’s $36 million in the 2022 election cycle, according to newly released data from the Federal Election Commission. Beasley brought in nearly $39 million in 2022, versus Republican opponent Ted Budd’s almost $15 million. Demings, meanwhile, was the third-best Senate fundraiser of the cycle, bringing in $81 million, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) collected about $51 million. And it wasn’t just Democrats. Two Black Republicans, Sen. Tim Scott and Senate challenger Herschel Walker, also smashed fundraising expectations, raising roughly $54 million and $74 million, respectively

But in the modern political system, raising money is only one component of a successful campaign. Getting outside help is the other. And as the 2022 cycle came to a close, operatives on some of the high-profile races said they felt ill-equipped to compete against GOP super PACs as Democratic Party groups looked to protect incumbents and poured money into other races, like Pennsylvania.

Barnes, for one, was hit with $62 million in outside spending from Republican groups including the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to an analysis of general election spending by OpenSecrets. By contrast, Democratic outside groups, including the top Senate Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC, spent $41 million on the Wisconsin race.

September was particularly difficult for Barnes, according to his campaign. That month, Democrats were outspent $28 million to $20 million on the airwaves in the Wisconsin Senate race, per AdImpact, which tracks campaign media spending, including broadcast, cable, radio, digital and satellite. The vast majority of GOP spending came from its outside groups.

Barnes’ aides didn’t point fingers at any specific group — they said the extra money they needed could have come from super PACs or to their own campaign — but said the key fact is they were outmatched.

“People were seeing three negative ads for every one good thing they were seeing about the lieutenant governor. That has a pretty significant impact,” said Kozloski. “Unfortunately, it certainly cost us 26,000 votes.”

The Pennsylvania Senate contest, another major midterm battleground, received the most outside spending of all federal elections in 2022, according to OpenSecrets. Almost $113 million was spent on now-Sen. John Fetterman’s behalf by Democratic outside groups, while GOP organizations bolstered Mehmet Oz with more than $95 million in the general election. Fetterman was the only candidate to flip a Senate seat in 2022, where he won by almost 5 percent of the vote, and received investments from both Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and its super PAC ally, Senate Majority PAC, as well as other outside groups.

Beasley, for her part, was the only Democratic Senate candidate in a state that Trump carried in 2020 to receive outside spending help from Senate Majority PAC, which invested about $13 million in her race, according to its FEC filings. Other outside groups spent almost $9 million more backing her in the general election, according to OpenSecrets.

But there wasn’t a direct expenditure from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the contest. (According to a DSCC aide, the group sent out tandem emails for direct fundraising and bundled money on her behalf.) And the total outside spending in the general for Beasley didn’t match what the GOP did for Budd.

Republican outside groups spent almost $62 million, with money coming from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Leadership Fund and other organizations, according to OpenSecrets.

Demings received no outside support from the DSCC or Senate Majority PAC. Like with Beasley, the DSCC sent tandem fundraising emails and bundled money for her, the DSCC aide said. But in Demings’ case, Democrats were not outspent. Outside groups invested just under $3 million on Demings’ behalf, while Republican organizations spent more than $3 million to help Rubio during the general election, according to OpenSecrets.

A Demings spokesperson declined to comment. A person close to the campaign said that while Demings didn’t struggle with a spending disparity in her own contest, that wasn’t the case in the Florida governor’s race, where the GOP dominated in spending and earned media. In their view, that blew back on Demings.

“Anything that we talked about was sort of a sideshow, which is pretty unusual in a Senate race,” the person said.

Democratic officials noted that, as a rule, party committees and outside groups prioritize protecting incumbents. While Barnes, Beasley and Demings were all either challengers or open-seat contenders, Warnock was running for reelection and receiving the full-throated support of Democratic outside groups. Georgia Honor, which is tied to Senate Majority PAC, spent more than $60 million in the race, according to the FEC. The DSCC also invested nearly $11 million in opposing Walker.

“We’re proud to have invested over $62 million in Wisconsin and North Carolina this cycle—and to have helped level the playing field for our candidates as they faced an avalanche of fear-mongering attacks from a handful of right-wing billionaires,” said Senate Majority PAC spokesperson Veronica Yoo. “In the end, SMP’s strategic investments accomplished our mission: defending and expanding our Democratic Senate majority against the odds.”

Those officials have also defended their funding decisions by noting that, in some cases, Black Senate candidates in 2022 were competing in difficult states. While Wisconsin is a perpetual toss-up, Florida has been trending redder in recent years. And North Carolina has been just out of grasp for Democrats in many statewide elections. Beasley lost by 3 points. Demings fell short by 16 points.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), head of the DSCC, said that there wasn’t any more support that the group could have given to the non-incumbent Black candidates. “We provided support. In Wisconsin, we provided major support,” he said, referring to the group’s $3 million independent expenditure to oppose Johnson.

“I think they’re the strongest candidates that we could have had in each of those states,” Peters said. “I was very excited about all of them. But part of the problem was just that they were running in challenging states. They’re just difficult states for a Democrat to win. They all had great runs and came close. And Barnes, in particular, came really close.”

Democrats who object to complaints about spending decisions also note that outside group support isn’t as important as a candidate’s own fundraising. That’s because candidates receive discounted rates to air their advertising while outside groups have to pay market rates, allowing a candidate’s money to stretch further on the airwaves.

But other veterans of the 2022 cycle, including those who worked for those high-profile Black Senate candidates, said that significant outside investment can help provide additional messaging that has a cumulative impact for voters.

“Republicans decided that their path to victory involved tearing down this incredibly accomplished woman,” said Travis Brimm, Beasley’s campaign manager. “And they were going to spend as much money as they needed to get across that finish line. And ultimately, to be in a position to get through that and win in a Trump state, we were going to need outside investment to be a lot closer to parity.”

In addition to boosting candidates in outside spending, some Black politicians and strategists believe there should be more tailor-made support to help Black candidates’ campaigns. Bowman, for one, said more infrastructure should focus on grassroots organizing and communicating Democrats’ positive message to voters.

He said that after the midterm elections, he and Harrison, who is now Democratic National Committee chair, discussed diversity issues in the party, including supporting more Black candidates and better ways to campaign for Black voters.

“You know, we both have bald heads, but we go to barbershops all the time. And we have conversations at barbershops about how people feel,” Bowman said. “And you know, people have felt like Democrats aren’t fighting hard enough — for Black men in particular.”

In the wake of his loss, Barnes has decided to take on that initiative as well. He has launched a new PAC called The Long Run to support diverse candidates running for office. Though he proved to be an adept fundraiser, his aides said that he had to contend with the fact that donors routinely questioned his electability.

“There’s always this question to younger candidates, candidates of color. You know, when you don’t look like the majority of the electorate, there’s always the question: ‘Can you win?’” Barnes told POLITICO. “I get it. That’s valid, ‘Can you win?’ is a valid question. But there comes a certain point where it’s like, you’ve proven that you can actually win, where you have done the work. And, you know, the question still exists.”

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), herself a one-time Senate candidate, said that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, DSCC and DNC could all be doing more to support the specific needs of Black candidates, and candidates of color generally.

“People have to see Black candidates as, you know, Senate leaders,” Bush said, talking about Democratic organizations and voters. “I remember my very first race, I ran for U.S. Senate, and what they said to me was, ‘You’re a Black woman. Black women, Black people don’t win statewide in Missouri.’”

As she gears up for her own Senate run, Lee said she has had similar experiences. When she first ran for Congress, she recalled being told not to do so because it was too difficult.

“There’s no doubt that Black women have the highest systemic barriers to success,” said Lee. “Smaller donor networks, less organizational support, and more barriers to entry. The other more establishment and overly-funded candidates have the resources, but we are the backbone of the party.”