Thirty-five U.S. Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House are up for election this year. Many primary elections have been rescheduled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and in others, polling place closures and vote-by-mail difficulties will make it harder to vote. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, Kentucky will be deciding which Democrat will challenge Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in November. Across the country, voters are deciding who will run in the general election in November.
In many overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican states and districts, these party elections all but determine who will serve in Washington. Everywhere, primary voters’ decisions set the matchups that will determine control of Congress for at least the next two years.
What does the 2020 congressional primary candidate field look like compared to previous years, and what trends do we see in who is winning so far?
Congress is less diverse than the population
While 2018 set a record for female and minority representation, women still make up less than a quarter of the House and Senate. Racial and ethnic minorities are also underrepresented in Congress compared with their share of the U.S. population, although they’ve been increasing every year since 2008.
As part of a broader project on when and where minority and white candidates are successful, a team of research assistants and I have coded the race/ethnicity of every candidate running for Congress since 2006.
Looking at trends from 2006 to 2018, we can see that the percentage of primary candidates, general election candidates and general election winners who are nonwhite — that is, black, Latinx, Asian American or Native American — has grown steadily over the past decade and a half. However, these increases have just kept pace with the growth of the nonwhite population. There’s still a significant gap between the share of the voting-eligible population who are nonwhite (about 33 percent) and the share of congressional candidates or winners who are nonwhite (20 to 22 percent).
The 2020 primary candidate field is more diverse than in previous years
According to state filing lists and presumptive candidacies, as compiled by the Green Papers, this year, more than 2,200 Democratic and Republican candidates are running in congressional primaries. This is slightly more than the number of candidates in 2018 and 2010, both very high by historical standards. As of mid-June, about half the states have held their congressional primaries, so we know who is advancing to the November election or, less often, a runoff to be held later in the summer.
The Center for American Women and Politics has already noted that there are a record number of women seeking seats in Congress this year. Women make up 29.2 percent of major-party U.S. House primary candidates in 2020, up from 24.2 percent in 2018 and 17.8 percent in 2016.
For racial and ethnic diversity, 2020 will also be a record. In the 22 states that have already held primaries, 30.6 percent of House candidates were black, Latinx, Asian American or Native American. This is more than in the same states during 2018, when they made up 22.3 percent of the candidates; 2016, when they made up 23 percent; or any year dating back to at least the early 2000s.
Democratic and Republican primary voters have a more diverse candidate pool to select from. A larger share of Democrats (42.4 percent) than Republicans (20.2 percent) are nonwhite, but for both parties, the share and raw number of minority candidates are higher than in previous years. In 2018, only 30.8 percent of Democratic candidates and 12.6 percent of Republican candidates were nonwhite.
Those who’ve won primaries so far in 2020 are also more racially and ethnically diverse in 2020 than in other years. So far, 31.6 percent of candidates winning primaries or advancing to runoffs have been racial or ethnic minorities — roughly the same as the share of candidates who were seeking office. Just a quarter of primary winners or runoff candidates were nonwhite in 2018 and 2016.
Months before the November election, Congress is already setting up to be more diverse in race, gender and the intersection of the two.
Why are more nonwhite candidates running — and winning — this year?
In some cases, minority candidates are challenging incumbents. In 2018, Democratic challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over incumbent Joseph Crowley in New York shocked analysts, as did Democratic challenger Ayanna Pressley’s win over incumbent Michael E. Capuano in Massachusetts. In winning, they established that nonwhite candidates in heavily minority districts can beat white incumbents — and a number of candidates have taken that lesson to heart. For example, the New York Times editorial board’s primary endorsements for Tuesday’s election include Jamaal Bowman (New York’s 16th District) and Mondaire Jones (New York’s 17th District), two liberal black candidates who challenged white Democratic incumbents.
Candidates of color are also running in white, Republican districts — after seeing black candidates win even in Republican-leaning districts in 2018. This year, Indiana has its first Latina nominee to the competitive but Republican-held 5th District: former state representative and Democrat Christina Hale.
Nominating a candidate of color probably won’t hurt a party’s chances in November
In my own research, I’ve found that, on average, nonwhite nominees do as well in the general election as white candidates. That’s consistent with other research on how well candidates of color do with bringing in donations and party financial support.
The possibility of another Democratic wave also favors greater racial/ethnic diversity. Republican nominees are far more likely to be white than are Democrats up and down the ballot.
If Democrats extend their House majority, candidates of color may lead the way.
Bernard L. Fraga (@blfraga) is an associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of “The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).