Donald Trump gestures during a campaign rally, ahead of elections, at Pensacola Airport in Florida. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: In the 2018 US 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 colour, 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.

If she won, Stacey Abrams would be the first black woman elected governor of any state.

A truck drives displaying a message reading 'Vote Out Hate' in Los Angeles, California. AFP

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 is a sense that our communities are under attack and we are the best advocates for policies that will fight back against those attacks."

 — Sayu Bhojwani | President of New American Leaders


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 colour — a 42 per cent increase from just two years ago. There are at least 215 candidates of colour 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 fuelled 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 organisation 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 per cent of candidates for Congress and governor this year.

69%
of all governors and members of Congress are white men.

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 US population, but 69 per cent of all governors and members of Congress. That disconnect looks particularly stark in districts where a majority of residents are people of colour. 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.

Democratic supporters work at a phone bank event at the Westside Democratic Headquarters in Los Angeles. AFP

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.

84
women of colour running for office in this week’s elections

Appeals like that pave the way for other people of colour, women and those from historically marginalised 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.

“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.”

 

Trailblazers

There has been a shift in the kinds of Americans choosing to pursue public service through elected office. 

Stacy Yvonne Abrams, 44, is a lawyer and novelist. If elected she will be the first black woman elected governor.


Businesswoman and US Rep Marsha Blackburn, 66, would be Tennessee’s first female senator if she wins.


Ayanna S. Pressley, 45, is now poised to become the first black woman to represent her state in Congress.


Andrew Demese Gillum, 39, has served as Mayor of Tallahassee, Florida since 2014. If elected, Gillum would be the first black governor of his state.