Kamala Harris’ Liability Was Not Electability

Senator Kamala Harris was navigating little-charted terrain in her 2020 campaign as just the third Black woman to wage a campaign for a major party presidential nomination. Despite a momentous launch, her campaign struggled to maintain momentum—and, as Harris noted last week when she withdrew from the race, to raise the money they needed to keep the campaign afloat.

There have already been countless takes on what contributed to Harris’ departure from the primary. When it comes to talk about electability, though, it’s vital to remember that Harris’ electability as a Black woman was not the problem in the 2020 race. Instead, doubts of that electability—whether from voters, donors, media or political elites—were an added burden to her campaign. 

Kamala Harris speaks to the crowd at the “Linking Together: March to Save Our Care” Rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017. (Mobilus In Mobili / Creative Commons)

Senator Harris directly challenged perceptions that she was unelectable, particularly due to her race and gender, on the campaign trail. “I have faith in the American people to know that we will never be burdened by the assumptions of who can do what,” she told Iowa voters in September, “based on who historically has done it.”

That faith is rooted in her own lived experience: In 2010, Harris became the first woman elected as California’s Attorney General and the first Black woman elected statewide in California, and she won more than 7.5 million votes in 2016 to become just the second Black woman and the first Indian American ever elected to the U.S. Senate. 

The 2018 election offered additional evidence that Black women candidates can win: Eighty percent of the five Black congresswomen elected for the first time that year were elected in majority-white districts. This fact cuts at the heart of fears that Black women cannot win in districts, states or nationwide because white people, who remain (for now) the majority of many electorates, will not vote for them.

These Black women won despite having to confront doubts of their electability, intersectional stereotypes and fundraising disadvantages that were found to be distinct to Black women running in 2018. While she was not ultimately elected, Stacey Abrams (D) also proved the doubters wrong by winning nearly two million votes in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, more total votes than any Democratic nominee had won in Georgia’s history and a larger percentage of the vote than any Democrat since 1998. Abrams also won 98 percent of Democratic voters and 50 percent (compared to her opponent’s 45 percent) of voters who declared themselves unaffiliated with any political party. 

These cases alone upend claims that betting on Black women is too electorally risky—and so does Black women’s success in electoral contests for Congress, state legislatures and in America’s most populous cities in recent years. As our new report on the status of Black women in American politics shows, between 2018 and 2019, Black women saw the largest increase in representation at the state legislative level since 1994.

Black women’s gains were not unique to 2019. Scholar Wendy Smooth has shown that Black women accounted for nearly all of the gains in Black state legislative representation for at least the decade between 1994 and 2004. In the past five years, 11 Black women have been elected mayor in the 100 most populous cities in the United States. In 2014, just one Black woman was serving as mayor in one of these cities, compared to seven today.

Black women are winning—despite the hurdles put in their way and the doubts they have to push back against. But they remain underrepresented at every level of elected office.

Though Black women are about 7.6 percent of the U.S. population, they are 4.3 percent members of the U.S. Congress, 4.3 percent of state legislators and just 1.9 percent of statewide elected executive officials. At least for now, the presidency will also remain out of reach for a Black woman in 2020. 

A key route toward remedying these disparities is by expanding the sites where Black women run and win—and that requires discrediting unelectability claims that constrain Black women candidates’ potential. Too often, the burden is placed on Black women candidates to convince others that their race and gender are not an electoral liability.

At the same Iowa event where Senator Harris expressed her faith in American voters to imagine what could be instead of what has been in presidential leadership, she also explained that the electability conversation is not new to her. “It’s actually a conversation I’ve heard,” she told the audience, “in every campaign I have—and now here’s the operative word—won.”

Harris is accustomed to doing more work than her white male colleagues to achieve the same result, including making the cases that she both should and can win at the same time. But that added burden has real costs—of time, money and energy—for any campaign.  

Black women candidates cannot succumb to status quo definitions of electability because that would only ensure their exclusion from positions of political power. As our new report details, the gains in Black women’s political representation are notable but recent. For example, as of today, only 15 Black women have ever held statewide elected executive offices in the United States; importantly, though, nearly half of those women were elected in the past decade alone. If Black woman only made decisions to run for office based on who has won before them, the representational disparities we see today would be even more stark. 

It will take more than Black women’s willingness to challenge the status quo to see electoral gains at all levels, including the presidency. If we want to level the playing field for Black women candidates, we have to accept that Black women are electable and stop asking them to prove that their race and gender, and the combination thereof, are not electoral liabilities.

Instead, let’s leave Black women candidates to the work of convincing voters that they are the best person for the job.

About and

Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.
Glynda Carr is a co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization building the political power and leadership of Black women from the voting booth to elected office.