In South, most Black Senate candidates since Reconstruction

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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jaime Harrison speaks at a campaign rally on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. – In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate this year, the Deep South is fielding more Black candidates than it has since Reconstruction.

In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison is raising a previously unfathomable amount of money in what has become a competitive fight to unseat one of the more powerful Republicans in the Senate. He’s joined by Raphael Warnock in neighboring Georgia, the leading Democrat in a crowded field running for the seat held by an appointed Republican. Mike Espy and Adrian Perkins, meanwhile, are launching spirited bids for the Senate in Mississippi and Louisiana, respectively.

Their candidacies come during a year of deep reckoning in the U.S. over systemic racism and represent a more diverse type of political leader in the South, where Democrats have tended to rally behind white moderates in recent years in often ill-fated attempts to appeal to disaffected Republicans.

“It’s continually a tough fight that we wage to help Democrats imagine a world where people who look like myself, are viable candidates everywhere — not just in your blue states, not just in the urban cities,” said Quentin James of The Collective, a political action committee that supports Black candidates.

The Senate currently has three Black members: Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. Harris is the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

The candidates face hurdles in a region that has been a GOP stronghold for a generation. Of their four states, only one has a Democratic governor. In South Carolina, it's been nearly 15 years since a Democrat won statewide office and 44 years since a Democratic presidential candidate won.

But there are signs of possible change. In Georgia and North Carolina — states that haven’t supported a Democrat for the White House since 1992 and 2008, respectively — Joe Biden is running a tight race with President Donald Trump. In Georgia, Warnock recently appeared at a rally with Harris, who has endorsed him.

The 2018 elections marked something of a turning point. While Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race, her strong performance, particularly in Atlanta's Republican-leaning suburbs, suggested there was a path for Black Democrats.