With the close of candidate filing in Mississippi on Friday, Democrat Mike Espy officially locked in a rematch with Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, who defeated him last year in the state's closest Senate race in many years. A victory by Espy, who served in the U.S. House from 1987 to 1993, would make him just the fifth Black Democrat to win a seat in the Senate.
But Espy’s campaign could garner him an even rarer distinction—a unique one, in fact. Ever since Arthur W. Mitchell’s election in 1934 made him the first Black Democrat to enter the House, 119 have followed in his footsteps. Today, the Congressional Black Caucus numbers 51 members—a record high—while roughly half of all sitting senators began their career in the lower chamber.
As Perry Bacon Jr. observed at FiveThirtyEight last year, however, no Black House Democrat has ever made the leap to the Senate. In fact, Espy’s bid marks just the eighth time a Black Democratic member of the House, current or former, has sought a seat in the Senate, a figure that includes Espy’s first attempt.
Serving in the U.S House is somewhat like being an offensive coordinator in the NFL: It’s not the only route to a promotion, but it’s certainly the road most traveled. But similar to Black football coaches, black politicians have had considerable difficulty accessing the pathways to higher positions, especially when compared to their white counterparts.
Yet members of the House remain some of the most sought-after candidates for Senate, so what can the experiences of Black House Democrats tell us about the obstacles that even veteran Black politicians face when seeking statewide office?
In this post, I’ll take a detailed look at every Senate campaign waged by a Black person who served in the House, starting with Missouri Rep. Alan Wheat’s 1994 bid. In particular, I’ll examine the role race did—or did not—play in each election to see what lessons we might learn from the experiences of these five men and two women, and what they might tell us about the prospect of Black House Democrats finally getting to join the most exclusive legislative body in America.
House district: Missouri's 5th (1983-1995), Senate race: 1994
Alan Wheat was the first Black person who served in the House of Representatives to ever run for Senate, but unlike all those who would follow him, he began his career representing a majority-white constituency at a time when few other Black representatives did.
Wheat, a three-term state senator, wound up as the only Black candidate in a crowded Democratic field to succeed retiring Rep. Richard Bolling in the Kansas City-based 5th Congressional District in 1982. He narrowly beat his nearest opponent 31-30 but went on to easily win the general election and served six terms.
At the time, there were only 19 other Black members of Congress, and just four represented seats that weren't home to an African American majority. Wheat's own district was 75% white, and as a result, he regularly drew primary challenges from white politicians. The most serious attempt at an intraparty ouster came in 1992, though Wheat turned back Jackson County Legislator Fred Arbanas by a fairly comfortable 58-38 margin.
During his tenure in the House, Wheat became the youngest member to ever join the influential House Rules Committee. After a decade of service in the House, he decided to run for the Senate seat vacated by Republican John Danforth in 1994.
At first, history repeated itself: As he had in his first primary for the House, Wheat won a small plurality over a large crowd of white candidates, turning back his nearest rival, Jackson County Executive Marsha Murphy, by a 41-38 margin. From there, though, Wheat found himself in uncharted territory: Not only was he the first Black member of the House to seek a seat in the Senate, but he was also the first Black candidate for statewide office in Missouri history.
Later Senate races would feature questions about race more explicitly but it was still a complexity that Wheat had to navigate. Looking back on his campaign decades later, Wheat offered an illuminating take on his approach to race in the campaign. “Race never came up, so I brought it up," he said." I knew it was on people’s minds, and I wanted to openly discuss it so that any questions people had about it could be answered and satisfied.”
Ultimately, though, partisanship, not race, was the deciding factor. In addition to the GOP wave that swept through the country in 1994, Wheat ran into a formidable opponent in then-Gov. John Ashcroft, who had held statewide office since 1973. These obstacles proved too much for Wheat to overcome, and he fell to Ashcroft 60-36. Outside of the city of St. Louis, Wheat lost every county in the state, even his home base of Jackson County.
While Wheat did not accomplish his goal, his campaign paved the way for future Black representatives with similarly strong resumes to take the risk of running for statewide office, though it would be another decade before another one would once again seek a seat in the Senate.
House district: Georgia's 4th (2003-2005), Senate race: 2004
Denise Majette had a short but highly eventful political career. After nine years as a judge in DeKalb County, she decided to challenge Rep. Cynthia McKinney in the Democratic primary for the safely blue 4th Congressional District in suburban Atlanta in 2002. McKinney had served in Congress for a decade but was a magnet for controversy, most notoriously when she promoted conspiracy theories in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Majette easily prevailed 58-42, effectively guaranteeing that she would represent the district.
In the middle of her first term, however, Majette kicked off a surprise bid to replace retiring Sen. Zell Miller, who'd appointed Majette to her judgeship during his tenure as governor. Majette found herself in a very crowded primary field but led the way with 41% of the vote. That sent her to a runoff against businessman Cliff Oxford, whom she handily beat by a 59-41 margin.
In less than two years’ time, Majette had gone from an upstart primary challenger to the first Black woman in the House to run for Senate. But her run of electoral success faced its strongest test in the general election, where she faced veteran Rep. Johnny Isakson. Between Georgia’s red hue and George W. Bush’s strength at the top of the ticket, Majette was overmatched and lost to Isakson 58-40.
Majette would wage one more campaign, for state superintendent of schools in 2006. She won the Democratic primary but lost in the general election to Republican Kathy Cox 60-35. As for McKinney, the catalyst for Majette’s political career, she regained her seat in 2004 while Majette was losing her Senate bid. That comeback, however, was short-lived, as she was ousted in the Democratic primary once again two years later by Hank Johnson, who still represents that seat today.
House district: Maryland's 7th (1987-1996), Senate race: 2006
Long before Kweisi Mfume decided to run for Senate, he'd established himself as a high-profile figure in Baltimore politics. Mfume began his career as a public official in 1978 with his election to the Baltimore City Council, where he served until his successful bid for the House in 1986. That year, Mfume beat out a crowded primary field for an open seat in Maryland's 7th District, a safely blue seat centered in Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs.
By 1995, Mfume had come to be viewed as a rising star within the party and had joined the ranks of House Democratic leadership. But in a surprise move the following year, Mfume resigned to become president of the Charm City-based NAACP, which had been wracked by scandal. Mfume was credited with turning around the famed civil rights organization, improving the organization’s finances and boosting its membership, until he left in 2004.
While at the NAACP, Mfume had been mentioned as a potential candidate for Baltimore mayor, but he did not make another run for office until he kicked off a bid for Senate in 2005 to succeed Democrat Paul Sarbanes. This campaign had long been in the cards for Mfume: He'd hinted upon leaving the NAACP that he was interested in running for Senate, and he kicked off a bid just two days after Sarbanes, an Mfume ally, announced his retirement.
Mfume’s early entrance did not deter others from running, however, as the Democratic field ballooned to 18 candidates. But it was a former colleague, Rep. Ben Cardin, who emerged as Mfume’s chief opposition. Cardin, like Mfume, was a veteran of Baltimore politics, and the two were even members of the same freshman class in Congress.
During the primary, both leading candidates and their supporters emphasized issues such as Medicare and NAFTA rather than questions of identity (Cardin is Jewish), and polls showed a tight race. What did emerge as a significant problem for Mfume, though, was Cardin's large cash advantage, which allowed Cardin to dominate the airwaves. That proved to be decisive, as Cardin narrowly turned back Mfume 44-41.
Race did loom over the primary in one unusual way: The presumptive Republican nominee was a Black man, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Had Mfume captured the Democratic nomination, that would have set up a historic matchup between two Black major-party candidates. But GOP strategists also tried to argue that Democrats were in a double bind: Should Cardin win the primary, disaffected Black voters would flock to Steele, whereas if Mfume were to win, white voters would pick Steele instead.
That questionable logic fell apart on Election Day, as Cardin beat Steele 54-44. That included a 51-point win in the heavily Black city of Baltimore, which was almost identical to fellow Democrat Martin O'Malley's 53-point victory there in the governor's race on the very same day.
After his Senate bid, Mfume was again regularly mentioned as a possible candidate for Baltimore mayor, but he always declined. However, his political career may yet have a final chapter, as he's now running for the seat in his old congressional district, which became vacant last year after his successor, Elijah Cummings, died in office.
Harold Ford Jr.
House district: Tennessee's 9th (1997-2007), Senate race: 2006
Harold Ford had never hidden his ambitions for higher office, so it was no surprise when he launched a bid for Senate in 2005 after Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist announced his retirement.
A decade earlier, Ford had inherited his House seat from his father and promptly set about amassing a record as a moderate, despite the fact that his majority-Black Memphis-area district had always been strongly Democratic. By joining the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and even at one point challenging Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the Democratic caucus (he lost badly), Ford was determined to distance himself from the liberal wing of his party—which included most other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In the general election, Ford squared off against former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, a relative pragmatist who had lost the GOP primary for this same seat to Frist in 1994. Over the course of the campaign, it became clear that the race between Ford and Corker would be very close, despite Tennessee's conservative lean. With Democrats nationwide on the offensive thanks to a broad backlash to George W. Bush over the Iraq war and his handling of Hurricane Katrina, the two candidates traded leads in various polls, and it appeared that control of the Senate might come down to this seat. However, in the contest's waning days, things took an ugly turn.
The Republican National Committee released an ad in the style of on-the-street “interviews” with voters (all actors) who parroted by-the-numbers Republican attack lines. About halfway through the spot, a young white woman with bare shoulders exclaimed that she “met Harold at the Playboy party,” only to appear at the end imploring Ford to “call me," with a suggestive wink.
The ad drew widespread criticism for feeding into the age-old racist trope that villainizes Black men as preying on white women, one with an especially toxic history in the South. Ford decried the ad's contents as inappropriate but downplayed its racial elements, knowing he needed to win over white voters who'd never cast ballots for an African American before and didn't want to hear a Black candidate talk about race.
Ultimately, that sort of resistance proved too tough to overcome, as Corker won the election 51-48. Still, Ford's performance was notable. He ran a highly competitive campaign in a state that George W. Bush had carried 57-43 just two years earlier, and he forced the GOP to defend a seat it should have had little trouble retaining. Ford even managed to win over some very skeptical white voters, carrying rural Grundy County—which is 98% white—by a 61-38 spread. By 2016, Donald Trump would win this area 76-21.
In his narrow loss, Ford came closer to winning a Senate seat than any other Black member of the House in U.S. history.
House district: Florida's 17th (2003-2011), Senate race: 2010
Kendrick Meek had been a fixture in Florida politics for nearly two decades when he kicked off a bid for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Mel Martinez in 2009. In the 1990s, he served in both chambers of the state legislature, and in 2002 he won the majority Black, safely blue South Florida district that his mother, Carrie Meek, had represented for the prior decade.
Meek began the race relatively unknown outside of the Miami area. However, few notable names filed on the Democratic side, and Meek handily defeated wealthy businessman Jeff Green 58-31 to win the party’s nomination.
On the Republican side, then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced he would run for the Senate rather than seek a second term and began the race as the instant front-runner, picking up an early endorsement from the NRSC. However, Crist’s support of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, a heretical position for a GOP politician, helped sour Republican primary voters on the governor.
Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, an upstart firebrand from Miami, rode the wave of backlash to the stimulus and Obamacare to become the preferred candidate of the party’s conservative base. Crist, sensing he'd lose the GOP nomination, eventually dropped out of the primary and announced that he'd run in the general election as an independent.
The drama from the primary set up an atypical November race with three major contenders. While Meek gained the support of party luminaries such as former President Bill Clinton, polls increasingly showed him lagging behind Rubio and Crist. Eventually, Rubio opened up a clear lead over both candidates.
Late in the election, the question of electability that has long plagued African American candidates crept in when reports surfaced that Clinton had asked Meek to drop out of the race to make way for Crist. Crist had sought to portray himself as the main threat to Rubio and strongly hinted that he would caucus with Democrats if he were to win, but Meek declined to quit. In the end, the election played out as the polls had indicated, with Rubio winning with 49% to Crist’s 30% and Meek’s 20%.
Although Meek finished a distant third, his candidacy presents a classic “what if,” since he and Crist combined for 50% of the vote, a slightly greater total than Rubio's final take. But it would be naive to assume that every Crist voter would have gone to Meek in a one-on-one matchup, particularly since Crist had served as governor as a Republican and still retained some crossover appeal. It's just as likely that a contingent of voters that would have gladly voted for Crist simply would not have had the same eagerness to support a black congressman like Meek.
Conversely, however, it's unlikely Meek's support would have translated in full to Crist for almost inverse reasons: Black voters enthused by Meek's candidacy might not have been enthused about the prospect of pulling the lever for a candidate who just months earlier had been a Republican. In fact, the one county Meek won, Gadsden County in the Panhandle, is the state's lone majority-Black county, attesting to the durability of his popularity with Black voters.
In the end, though, both candidates likely would have been done in by the same fate had they faced Rubio head-to-head, given the massive GOP wave of 2010. However, Republican Rick Scott won the governor's race that same year by just a 48-47 margin over his Democratic opponent, offering the possibility that a two-person Senate battle could have likewise gone down to the wire.
House district: Maryland's 4th (2008-2017), Senate race: 2016
Donna Edwards began her House career similarly to the way Denise Majette had—by primarying a longtime incumbent—though it took her two tries before she was successful.
Edwards, the former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, challenged Al Wynn in the 2006 Democratic primary for Maryland’s 4th District, an affluent, majority-Black district in the D.C. suburbs. Wynn had been in office for seven terms but had drawn the ire of progressives for standing with the GOP on major issues, most notably his support for the Iraq War.
Edwards won backing from prominent groups such as EMILY’s List, as well as from the nascent online progressive movement, in her bid to unseat Wynn, but she narrowly lost the primary 50-46. That weak performance by Wynn heralded his demise: Two years later, Edwards cruised to a 59-37 win, making her the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress.
Much like Mfume before her, Edwards sought a promotion when a Senate seat opened up, in her case after longtime Sen. Barbara Mikulski decided to retire in 2015. A large field of candidates lined up in the Democratic primary to replace her, with Edwards and fellow Rep. Chris Van Hollen, both strong progressives with little ideological daylight between them, emerging as the top contenders.
But unlike Mfume, Edwards sought to center race. As a vocal advocate for increasing diversity in the Democratic Party, Edwards made her status as a Black woman seeking the high-profile position of senator a central part of her campaign. She drew a sharp contrast in that regard between herself and Van Hollen, a white man who represented the predominantly white and very wealthy 8th District just outside of D.C.
The fissure surfaced most pointedly when a prominent white Van Hollen supporter, state Senate President Mike Miller, described Van Hollen as "born to the job." Edwards slammed the remarks, observing that the U.S. has "largely been led by people who have always looked like that senior elected official"—meaning Miller—"not like me."
But Van Hollen, who'd ascended to the top ranks of leadership after helming the DCCC during the successful 2008 cycle, nevertheless locked up a wide swath of establishment support and enjoyed a financial advantage similar to Cardin's 10 years earlier. He ended up prevailing against Edwards 53-39 in a race that manifested a sharp racial divide.
Thanks to the presidential primary held the same day, Black turnout surged to a record high, with Black voters making up 48% of the primary electorate. Edwards won this cohort 57-37, according to exit polls. But even though whites made up a smaller 42% of voters, Van Hollen dominated, winning them 72-19.
A year later, Edwards would attempt another campaign, running for Prince George’s County executive. She once again lost in the Democratic primary, though this time to another Black woman, falling to Angela Alsobrooks by a 62-24 margin.
House district: Mississippi's 2nd (1987-1993), Senate races: 2018 & 2020
Years before he ran for Senate, Mike Espy had already enjoyed a “promotion” from the House: After Espy had served three terms in Congress, becoming the first Black House member from Mississippi since Reconstruction in the process, Bill Clinton named him his secretary of agriculture.
Espy served in this capacity for half of Clinton’s first term but resigned in 1994 amid allegations he'd accepted improper gifts. After a four-year investigation by a special prosecutor that resulted in an indictment on corruption charges, Espy was ultimately acquitted on all counts. Espy largely stayed out of the public eye for the next two decades until he kicked off a bid for Senate in 2018, when Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's resignation due to health issues kicked off a special election.
Espy's chief opponents in this officially nonpartisan race were a pair of Republicans, state Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith and state Sen. Chris McDaniel. McDaniel had a record as a far-right extremist who almost toppled Cochran in the 2014 primary, while Hyde-Smith was an establishment favorite who had been appointed to fill Cochran’s seat until the election.
Hyde-Smith edged Espy 41.2-40.9 in the first round of voting, while McDaniel, whom Democrats would have preferred to face, finished a distant third. With Hyde-Smith as Espy's runoff rival, though, a Republican hold on this seat in deep-red Mississippi was all but assured. That is, until the issue of race emerged as a significant factor.
Hyde-Smith entangled herself in one controversy after another, most notably her proclamation that if one of her supporters had invited her to a “public hanging,” she'd "be in the front row." Espy took a page out of Harold Ford’s playbook for handling racial issues: criticize your opponent's actions, but stop short of calling them racist.
Hyde-Smith’s blunders made national headlines and prompted major corporate PACs to ask for refunds of donations they'd made to her campaign. They also opened the door for Espy to employ the strategy Doug Jones had used just a year earlier in a special Senate election in neighboring Alabama: capitalize on a weak opponent marred by controversy by juicing up Black turnout and winning just enough of the white vote to eke out a victory in a low-turnout election.
Hyde-Smith wasn't quite as damaged as Roy Moore, though, and Espy was unable to recreate the magic of Alabama’s Senate race, losing to Hyde-Smith 54-46 in the runoff. The race, however, was the closest a Democrat had come to winning a Senate race in Mississippi since 1982, when notorious segregationist John Stennis won his seventh and final term.
In November, Espy kicked off a bid for a rematch with Hyde-Smith and swiftly received the backing of the DSCC. While it's difficult to see a path to victory for him, given what transpired last time out, he nevertheless has another chance to make history.
Collectively, what, if anything, can these campaigns tell us? In an important way, this collection of races forms an unusual sample: While historically, Black members of the House have won election in districts that are bluer on average, five of the seven candidates profiled here ran Senate races in red states. Racism, in a variety of manifestations, has always thrown up obstacles to Black office-seekers, but Wheat, Majette, Ford, Espy, and likely Meek all lost because of a similarly powerful force: raw partisan politics.
In his piece exploring why so few Black politicians have advanced to high office, Perry Bacon argues that only those "with stellar credentials in white-dominated spaces and relatively moderate politics" have been able to make that jump. Many if not most Black members of the House, he points out, don't share this sort of background.
But the experiences of Mfume and Edwards may offer the greatest insight into how this wheel might be broken. In a blue state like Maryland, it's not necessary for a Democrat to demonstrate moderation—in fact, in a primary, it would likely prove a liability—or to showcase a prior ability to win in white areas. Simply put, Democratic nominees for Senate in such races aren't going to lose to Republicans, regardless of whether their resumes meet with approval from the white political establishment.
Of course, a Black member of the House first has to win a Senate primary in a blue state, and that same establishment has yet to show enthusiasm for the prospect. But Mfume came very close, and Edwards was no pushover, so it seems like a matter of when, and not if, we'll see a Black representative ascend to the exclusive confines of the United States Senate.