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Rising Democratic star Val Demings wants to challenge Sen. Marco Rubio. Could she win?

Her network of Black women’s civic organizations would give her a critical boost

- May 24, 2021

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is reportedly planning to run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Demings came to national attention when she served as an impeachment manager in former president Donald Trump’s 2020 impeachment trial and rose further when she made then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s shortlist of vice-presidential contenders. If she wins Rubio’s seat, Demings would be only the third Black woman to serve as a senator. If she does run and wins the Democratic primary, she’ll get a great deal of national attention in a highly challenging race.

We expect Demings will have a good chance, given her strong fundraising history and her connection to Black female voters in community and civic organizations. Our research finds that Black women’s organizations are critical in mobilizing support and votes.

What our research reveals

In a recent journal article, one of us (Dowe) found that Black women’s political ambitions have often been misunderstood and underestimated. Interviews with 30 Black women across the country who are serving or have served as elected officials revealed that behind Black women’s ambition lies a broad network of community cultivation and support, including local and civic organizations and such institutions as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Black churches. These spaces often socialize Black women to lead and provide service, while offering supportive and insular spaces protected from racism that enable them to cultivate strategies to be successful candidates.

That dates to the 1896 founding of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW organized Black women, as did subsequent organizations such as the Black Greek-lettered sororities. In these bodies, Black women organized to give to the poor, finance social justice campaigns, establish child care for Black communities and cultivate strategies to achieve equality — all while making it a priority to protect and elevate Black women. These organizations and the women affiliated with them became pivotal to and deeply rooted within the political and cultural life of Black communities.

Interview participants consistently reported that fellow organization or community members who knew about their volunteer work encouraged them to seek elected office. The women also reported that once they decided to run, these organizations’ connections helped deliver such resources as campaign funds, volunteers, office space and social media promotion. The network of organization and community members who respected or benefited from the candidate’s community work stepped up to help them win office.

Stacey Abrams’s success in Georgia builds on generations of Black women’s organizing

How might Black women’s organizations support Demings’s campaign?

Demings has been a fixture in such Black women’s organizations as the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the local Orlando chapter of Links. Given their nonprofit status, neither national organization endorses any candidate. But being affiliated with these groups gives Demings a chance to hear directly from Black women about their political concerns — and to reach out to them to communicate her vision. Black women make up only 7 percent of the U.S. population, but they tend to vote at higher rates than other groups. They are the Democratic Party’s most loyal and consistent voters. The national and international network of Deltas and Links members gives Demings more fundraising opportunities among people who have already heard about her civic activism and public service. That matters, as political science research consistently finds that Black female candidates are disadvantaged in fundraising and often lack large individual donors to their campaigns.

Black women consistently support Black female candidates with their votes and are more likely to view Black female candidates favorably than other demographic groups. When a statewide Democratic candidate takes full advantage of these networks, engaging regularly with Black female voters, that constituency can give her a competitive edge — at times enough to win historically Republican states. That’s what we saw in 2017, when Doug Jones won the U.S. Senate race in Alabama, backed by Black women. And it’s what we saw when both Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff won the 2021 Senate runoffs in Georgia. In these races, grass-roots Black women-led organizations such as Black Girls Vote, Woke Vote and the New Georgia Project were vital in helping mobilize support for Democratic candidates, getting voters registered, persuading them to vote and ensuring that they did.

But to win these groups’ full support, Demings must be mindful of how she engages with them.

Black women are willing to wait longer in line to vote than any other demographic group

Engaging Black female voters in and outside of organizations

Our other author, Daniels, conducted dissertation research using survey data on more than 5,000 Black women ages 18 through 86 who are members of Black Greek-lettered sororities. She found that how Black female candidates speak to and about Black women, interact with Black women and shape policy platforms are all factors that will influence whether they’re backed by other Black women. Black female voters are astute and strategic, and they will not simply support another Black female candidate because of her race and gendered identity.

Daniels’s research suggests that Demings may have a hard time winning votes from millennial and Generation Z Black women — a group that considers police reform to be a priority political issue. The fact that Demings served as Orlando police chief may rub them the wrong way. This month, Demings published an op-ed in The Washington Post that critiqued U.S. policing from her perspective as a Black woman and a former police chief. Clearly, after the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests, Demings grasps that she must discuss the issue.

Being a member of Black women’s organizations can only carry her so far. She must appeal to supporters with her policy positions, too.

Obviously, we cannot predict how this Senate race will turn out. But a winning strategy is likely to rely heavily on the network of Black female organizations, along with strategic messaging to Florida’s young Black female voters.

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Ashley Daniels is a 2021 PhD recipient from Howard University whose dissertation is entitled “When I Look at You, I See Myself: Examining the Motivations of Black Women’s Support of Black female candidates.”

Pearl K. Dowe (@pkdphd) is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Emory University.

Read more at TMC’s Race and Ethnic Politics Topic Guide.