Rise of black candidates shows change is coming to Democratic Party

America Letter: Congressional primaries reveal increasingly progressive tilt

As the US mulls the political ramifications of the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd, those who hoped that this new awakening about racial inequality could generate political change may be heartened.

This week several states held primary contests. From New York to Virginia to Kentucky, parties chose the candidates they will put forward in November’s congressional elections, which will take place on the same day as the November 3rd presidential election.

For many sitting members of Congress, their nomination went uncontested, while others easily swatted off primary challengers. But the contests also threw up some surprises.

New York – which saw the biggest upset of the primary season two years ago, when newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated veteran Democrat Joe Crowley – looks poised to deliver another political jolt. Because of the high number of postal votes due to coronavirus, a final result is not yet known – a hint of what could unfold on November 3rd, when results may not be known on election night.


At time of writing, Eliot Engel, who has represented his district in Washington for more than 30 years, was trailing Jamaal Bowman, an African-American former school principal. Elsewhere in New York, two African-American gay men, Richie Torres and Mondaire Jones, looked set to replace two retiring Democrats.

If successful, the three Democratic nominees are likely to win the general election in November given that they represent strongly Democratic areas.

Further south in Virginia, Cameron Webb, a 37-year-old black doctor, won a Democratic primary on Tuesday. He faces a tougher election challenge in November, however, as he will be contesting a seat in a Republican-leaning constituency, though Democrats are quietly hopeful.

In Kentucky, 43-year-old African-American Charles Booker is giving Democratic favourite Amy McGrath a run for her money in the Senate primary. Whoever wins will face Republican stalwart Mitch McConnell in November's election. Dislodging McConnell will be a formidable task given Donald Trump's strong standing in Kentucky.

But the tighter-than-expected Kentucky primary has given the Democratic establishment in Washington food for thought. McGrath had the broad backing of the Democratic party, and had a formidable war chest of $41 million. Brooker, in contrast, had raised just under $800,000.


Similarly, most of the party's heavyweights, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, had backed veteran incumbent Eliot Engel in New York, but he may now lose. In contrast, Ocasio-Cortez and senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders endorsed Bowman.

The strong performance of several candidates of colour, running on a more leftist agenda than many of their party colleagues, mirrors the “blue wave” of two years ago when dozens of women and first-time candidates were elected to Congress in the midterm elections.

As the US ponders the problem of systemic racism in its institutions in the wake of Floyd’s death, the success of so many non-white candidates in the Democratic primaries is encouraging those who believe that the US political system should reflect the make-up of the nation.

In her aptly-named memoir This is What America Looks Like, first-term congresswoman Ilhan Omar describes the surprise of her political colleagues when she took her place in the Minnesota assembly as a young Muslim woman of colour.

“I was an equal member of the caucus, elected by the people, same as them,” she writes. Recalling the reaction of an older state senator when she ran for the leadership of their caucus, she says: “What did he expect? For me to walk around with an inferiority complex?”

The potential wave of new progressive politicians in 2020 also reawakens the debate within the Democratic Party between the moderate and more radical wings . Although the party has united behind Joe Biden – at 77 years of age, hardly a progressive candidate – even Biden allies believe that his success is a response to Trumpism, and the belief that he can offer an experienced alternative to the current occupant of the White House.

Recent polls even show young people getting behind Biden in greater numbers than they did for Hillary Clinton, perhaps an indication of the desperate desire among Democratic-leaning voters to end the Trump presidency.

But the results of this week’s primaries should give Democrats pause for thought as they look past 2020 and consider the long-term future of the party.

Whether a result of greater civic engagement since the death of Floyd, or anger at the presidency of Trump, these contests suggest that change is coming in the Democratic Party.