National News

The Faces of Change in the Midterm Elections

Posted October 31, 2018 3:25 p.m. EDT

In the 2018 midterm elections, diversity has become a political movement. Rising out of the protests in the early months of the Trump administration, an unprecedented number of women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates are now running for Congress and governor, according to a New York Times analysis.

The percentage of candidates who are white men is the lowest it has been in the last four elections, according to data available to The Times.

If she won, Stacey Abrams would be the first black woman elected governor of any state. Rep. Marsha Blackburn would be Tennessee’s first female senator. And Jared Polis of Colorado would be the nation’s first openly gay man to be elected governor. Scores of others could make history if they win their races.

The efforts of these candidates and others like them point to a major shift in the kinds of Americans choosing to pursue public service through elected office. Their candidacies are likely to have long-lasting impacts on political representation in the United States, though they are unlikely to radically change the overall composition of the House, Senate and governorships.

There are more new faces than incumbents in this diverse cohort of candidates. More than a quarter of all the candidates running this year are female, including 84 women of color — a 42 percent increase from just two years ago. There are at least 215 candidates of color and a record 26 openly LGBT candidates, more than five times the number in 2010.

The identities of the candidates are playing out against the backdrop of an election fueled by issues of race and gender. A weekend massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, a Supreme Court confirmation hearing roiled by accusations of sexual assault and a caravan of South American migrants have thrust these issues into the forefront of a charged election.

“There is a sense that our communities are under attack and we are the best advocates for policies that will fight back against those attacks,” said Sayu Bhojwani, president of New American Leaders, an organization that helps immigrants run for public office.

The diversity is not uniform. Among Democratic candidates, white men are actually a minority, making up just 41 percent of candidates for Congress and governor this year.

The other side of the aisle looks a lot different: Three in four Republican candidates are white men. In governor’s races this year, there are no black or Hispanic Republican candidates.

Currently, white men make up a third of the U.S. population, but 69 percent of all governors and members of Congress. That disconnect looks particularly stark in districts where a majority of residents are people of color. Democratic challengers in those areas, like Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, found primary success this year by stressing the importance of identity.

“Listen, I’m not saying vote for me because I’m a black woman, but I won’t pretend representation doesn’t matter. It matters,” Pressley said during a campaign stop over the summer.

In September, Pressley defeated 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary for her Boston-based district. She is now poised to become the first black woman to represent her state in Congress.

She is one of several female candidates who defeated male opponents, often surprising their parties as the unexpected winner of primaries this year.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York in a Democratic House primary in June, made similar appeals.

“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” she said, in a viral campaign video that kicked off her bid for Congress.

Appeals like that pave the way for other people of color, women and those from historically marginalized groups to run for office by changing the image of the kinds of Americans who are politicians, say proponents of increasing political diversity.

“When you have two Muslim-American women in Congress, suddenly every young Muslim-American woman sees that as a possibility,” said Bhojwani, who recently published a book on the new wave of first and second-generation Americans running for office. (Two Democratic candidates could fit the bill she described.)

In redder states, candidates are less likely to make explicit appeals to their identity. But the president’s inflammatory comments on matters of race, gender and sexuality have made discussion of these topics nearly unavoidable. Divisive themes have shown up in campaign ads and in debates across the country.

In the Florida debate for governor last week, Ron DeSantis, a Republican, was questioned on past speaking engagements at far-right conferences and campaign contributions from a donor who called Barack Obama a racist slur on Twitter. DeSantis said he would not “bow down to the altar of political correctness.”

His opponent, Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, shot back: “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

If elected, Gillum would be the first black governor of his state. While Gillum has a chance at victory — he is effectively tied with his opponent — in a number of other races, white men are likely to win. In Utah, Jenny Wilson, who would be the first female senator from the state, consistently polls behind her Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Christine Hallquist of Vermont, who would be the country’s first transgender governor, is expected to lose to Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent.

When you take out the long shots, women and candidates of color will most likely make up close to a third of Congress and governor’s mansions next year, similar to now. Winning all of the races that are considered competitive would increase their share to nearly 40 percent.

But some say parity is only part of the point.

“The most interesting part of this story may be yet to come,” said Cecile Richards, a former Planned Parenthood president, who has been campaigning for female candidates since stepping down from her position this year. “How to turn this massive energy into really serious political power for women — that’s the piece we haven’t figured out yet.”