News that Sen. Kamala Harris suspended her campaign for president sent shock waves through what was once hailed as the most diverse presidential primary in history. Although recent reports suggested her campaign was facing internal challenges, Harris was one of only six candidates who had qualified for the this month’s Democratic debate in Los Angeles. As a result of her departure, the debate may feature only white candidates, since no candidates of color currently meet the required donor and polling thresholds.
As the field of Democratic candidates appears to be narrowing to an all-white top tier, some are speculating about the ability of the party to retain and support candidates of color at every level.
“I think that [this outcome] is a very telling marker for where we are as a country and as a party,” said Michelle Watley, founder of the Kansas City, Missouri-based group Shirley’s Kitchen Cabinet, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization focused on uplifting the voices and power of Black women through education and advocacy. “[Democrats] say everyone fits in the big tent and all that. But that's not what's happening in reality.”
For Watley, Harris’ exit from the Democratic primary offers a unique reflection point for the party.
“We need to evaluate our processes,” she said. “We need to evaluate how we recruit candidates. We need to evaluate as a party and even as a people, how we're going about this. Playing it safe is a losing proposition. Trying to play it safe to placate voters who are not going to vote for us...will not win in this landscape.”
Even before suspending her campaign, Harris faced a spate of negative press that led organizers and other Democratic politicians of color to speak out about the hurdles non-white candidates have to clear, including biased media coverage.
“It's not even that [Black women] don't have the same grace or space to fail [as white men]. We don't even have the same grace to enter,” said Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, a political analyst who often provides commentary at the intersection of race and gender in politics. “Imagine a Black woman mayor of a little town saying that she’s gonna run for president.”
Reflecting on her own recent race for mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer echoed concerns about unfair news coverage, noting that outlets covering the mayoral election seemed uninterested in addressing the incumbent mayor’s failures and instead produced stories that effectively sent the message,“Let’s just show people that these women don't belong here” as candidates.
“The pernicious and false idea that white male candidates are more ‘electable’ has undoubtedly contributed to this outcome,” said Leah Greenberg, co-director of Indivisible, a grassroots movement based organization focused on elevating progressive policies and supporting local candidates. Earlier this year, Indivisible published a blog post about the importance and value of supporting diverse leadership.
“If our primary process and media ecosystem lock out and undervalue the voices and leadership of candidates of color, then we're shooting ourselves in the foot. More fundamentally, a healthy democracy (and a healthy Democratic party) is reflective of the identities and experiences of its people,” Greenberg said.
Harris’s exit from the race also highlighted the fundraising struggles that can hold candidates back.
In a Facebook post after Harris announced she was dropping out of the primary in part due to lack of financial resources, political strategist and feminist organizer Mrinalini Chakraborty lamented the influence of money in the race.
“You don't have to like her platform or her record (I was uncomfortable with some aspects of both), but losing a brilliant woman of color from a race when billionaires are coming in last minute and buying some candidates' entire campaign budget worth of weekly ad buys, it shows you how f*cking broken our system is,” she wrote.
One of those billionaires, climate activist Tom Steyer, expressed his appreciation for Harris after she suspended her campaign, which some viewed as a hollow gesture.
“Instead of these tweets of support [about] how you respected her so much, put your money where your mouth is and then go actually help a Black candidate in a local election get elected,” said longtime Harris supporter and California-based tech attorney Bari Williams.
Looking ahead, Jones-DeWeever noted that Black candidates like Harris are likely to face increased scrutiny from their own communities in the wake of the Obama presidency. Although she attempted to address issues of Black voter engagement within the Democratic party during the last presidential debate, Harris struggled to gain ground with Black voters. A November Quinnipiac poll showed Harris at 6% with Black voters in South Carolina. For some voters, representation alone is not enough to win them over.
“There are a lot of black people who—I think, for a very legitimate reason—have a level of disappointment following the Obama administration, said Jones-DeWeever. “Part of that was they had extremely high hopes and then [saw Obama enact] policies [and] preferences that did not seem that central to the black community.”
She advised future Black candidates to hire Black operatives at the highest levels of their campaigns, not simply as a matter of representation, but to ensure there are staff and advisors who can read a room when engaging Black voters.
“I do think that any future Black candidates need to come into the race realizing that dynamic and lean into the black community [and our needs] from the start...to solidify that base first. When we're talking about the primary season, I know everybody gets all enamored with Iowa and New Hampshire, but really it's Super Tuesday where it really starts to go down.”