How The Record Number of Black Women Running for Congress Are Rewriting the Campaign Playbook

October 7, 2020

Jackie Gordon

In early March, Jackie Gordon and a handful of staffers were ready to launch the field operation for her Congressional House campaign in Long Island, New York. Then, COVID-19 shut down the city.

The retired U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel didn’t blink. Over a 29-year career in the Armed Forces, she handled many sudden curveballs, serving as a battle captain in Iraq and commanding a military police battalion in Afghanistan. “What we would do,” she explained to Supermajority News of her time as a soldier from her home in the Long Island hamlet of Copiague, “is adapt and overcome.” 

Gordon applied the same strategy to her campaign, and the results speak for themselves: Gordon won the June Democratic primary with nearly 73% of the vote. If she wins in November, she will be the first woman and first African-American to represent the 2nd District.

Gordon’s “adapt and overcome” approach is a fitting description for the campaigns of many Black women congressional candidates in the face of COVID-19 — a record number of whom are running this year, according to analysis from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). With fewer fundraising dollars to go around and limits on public appearances, all politicians have faced barriers this election cycle — but Black women are dealing with COVID-19 on top of specific challenges they face because of their identity, from racist stereotypes like the “angry Black woman” trope to derisive comments about their appearance (usually hair related), threats of violence, being less likely to be encouraged to run, and being more likely to be discouraged from running.

Nevertheless, campaigning during COVID-19 has also offered Black women candidates the opportunity to lean into strategies they’ve cultivated through years of grassroots organizing and public service. During this unprecedented public health crisis, voters want competent, caring leadership in office — and Black women have been providing that to their communities for generations. 

Overcoming the fundraising gap 

Getting elected to Congress in America costs money — over $10 million, on average, to win in the Senate, and $1.5 million to win in the House, according to 2016 figures. In this regard, Black women are at a particular disadvantage; according to a report by the Center for Responsive Politics, Black women were the most underfunded candidates out of every identity group that ran in the 2018 midterm elections, primarily due to a lack of large donors. 

Pam Keith, a former Navy JAG Officer currently running to represent Florida’s 18th District, attributes the lack of large donors to Black women’s campaigns to a catch-22 she calls the “viability vortex.” “It’s the [Democratic party’s] endorsement that gets you the money,” she explained to Supermajority News, “but it’s the money that gets you the endorsement.” 

“People who have the money that could give to us simply are going to wait and see that we’re viable,” Keith continued. “They do not believe that [we] can win without the support of the party.”

Nikema Williams, a first-time Georgia state senator whom Georgia Democrats selected from 130 candidates to run in place of the late John Lewis on July 20th, noted that even the party’s support can hamper fundraising in some circumstances. While being chosen “to be the voice of the 5th Congressional District has truly been the honor of my life,” she said to Supermajority News, she points out that the assumption that the historic seat for which she is running is safely Democratic could work against her. “Starting a campaign with zero dollars in a ‘safe’ district, are people going to put their money into this race?”  

These disadvantages have been compounded this year by the economic devastation the pandemic has caused. In the first months of lockdown, all political campaigns saw steep drop-offs in donations as over 45 million Americans — most of whom were middle and working class, the most likely group to be small donors ($200 or less) and give to Democratic candidates — filed for unemployment. (Current estimates are that anywhere between 20-35 million Americans are currently receiving unemployment benefits.) This particularly impacts Black candidates, as 4 of the 10 House Democrats with the highest percentage of small donor contributions in the 2018 House elections were Black. According to the most recent figures from The Center for Responsive Politics, donations of $200 or less made up 36%t of Keith’s contributions and 20% of Gordon’s. (Williams launched her campaign after the data collection.)

Still, the pandemic has made fundraising easier for the candidates to prioritize. When Keith first ran for the House in 2018, “there was a constant tension about whether I should be on the phones fundraising or in the community chasing down votes.” This year, she said, “the only thing to do is fundraise.”

Leveraging their records of service  

While securing large donations may help convince party officials that Black women candidates are electable, it can’t guarantee those candidates votes. “In our world,” Keith explained, “there is no such thing as maneuvering without credential[s].” Many Black female Congressional candidates this year not only have impressive degrees and professional experience, but also long records of public service in the communities from which they are seeking votes. 

In addition to her tenure in the Army Reserves, Gordon worked as a counselor in NYC public schools for three decades. From 2007-2020, she served on Babylon’s Town Council and was the first Black woman to hold this position. She feels like she connects with voters in the district in part, she says, because many of them are also public servants, such as veterans, teachers, police officers, and healthcare workers, and therefore have similar economic concerns. “I live here, too,” she said. “I’m subjected to the state and local tax cap, and it’s squeezing me like it’s squeezing everyone else.” 

Williams can also point to a long record of standing up for women’s and worker’s rights in her community. She served as Vice President of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood Southeast and Deputy Director of Civic Engagement at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In November 2018, the state senator was even one of 15 arrested demonstrating against the midterm and governor election results in the State Capitol. 

Keith agrees this trust is essential, and credits her 2016 Senate and 2018 House campaigns for building it between her and her community. When she launched her 2020 campaign on Facebook, 260 volunteers immediately signed up — and that number has since doubled.

“Especially in minority communities, young communities, immigrant communities, there are key influencers,” Keith observed. “Somebody sees you or meets you and is so blown away, for the next three weeks they tell everybody they know that they need to check you out.” 

“That kind of bedrock validation gives comfort and trust,” she continued, “not based on my credibility but [theirs].” 

“I have seen this throughline of women and women of color that are specifically focusing on the relationships and the trust that they’ve already stewarded in community,” Sarah Groh, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s 2018 campaign manager and now her chief of staff, told Supermajority News. As a result, “the systemic dynamics around how campaigns have been [traditionally] run and won are shifting underneath our feet, largely due to the leadership of Black women.” 

Replacing face-to-face connections

Lockdowns and social distancing have limited, if not altogether eliminated, the face-to-face interactions that research shows are still the most effective means of garnering votes. To capture some of that interpersonal connection, candidates have been thinking creatively about how to effectively reach their constituents from a distance. 

Rhonda Briggins, co-founder of the nonprofit VoteRunLead, which trains female candidates, shared a variety of strategies they’ve shared with candidates, including leaving Post-It messages and personalized voting plans on doors and in mailboxes. 

Pam Keith’s staff convinced her to try car caravans; they decorated cars and drove slowly through neighborhoods, playing music and sharing her platform via bullhorn. “I did actually get people saying, ‘Oh! I saw you driving through the neighborhood!’” Keith said. That impact is multiplied when those people tell their friends and family circles about the caravans. 

Mutual aid, a community organizing strategy in which members of a community come together to care for one another, has been especially critical to voter outreach this year. Gordon’s campaign, for example, has “service battalions” that plan a monthly mutual aid event, from food drives to back-to-school donations. Gordon’s campaign manager Meg Scribner said these efforts have “really created this community and provided a lot of lifelines for people.” 

Self-care also takes on a greater importance for the candidates, who themselves miss the energy of face-to-face connection. Senator Williams gave her virtual speech to replace John Lewis on the ballot at home, with only her beloved husband and 5 year-old son nearby. “Typically, you would have at least your supporters around you, so that you know that you’re not going [through] this alone,” she said. “And then it was streamed live on national television.” 

It didn’t help that she was often asked how she would deal with her son’s remote schooling if she won. “I just cannot imagine that people ask men, ‘what about their children?’ when they say that they’re going to run for office,” she said.

Black Women are vulnerable, and need support

Black women experience more systemic barriers to victory than any other type of candidate on the campaign trail, so they especially benefit from individual and community support. There are many ways that voters can support Black women candidates during this election cycle, including donating, phonebanking, and writing postcards on behalf of a candidate. They can share articles, Facebook posts, and tweets composed by and about candidates. In late August, Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, lost her race for a seat on the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners by only 331 votes. Would a few more dollars and a few more volunteers on the phones have changed that outcome? Likely. 

Voters can also focus on participating in voter registration card drop-offs, or providing food and transportation to the polls if safe to do so. “Make a plan for yourself, [because] there are so many voter suppression tactics,” said Briggins. 

In other words, voters can adopt some of the same collective, collaborative strategies that Black women are implementing in their campaigns this year. As Briggins said, “we need a lot of ‘us, we, they’ and not ‘me, my, and I.’”