Nearly two centuries after Missouri gained statehood as part of a compromise over slave ownership, no black candidate has ever won a statewide election there – a barrier Robin Smith is trying to overcome but seldom discusses publicly.
According to an analysis by The Associated Press, Missouri is one of 10 states since Reconstruction where only white candidates have won contests for president, senator, governor and other nonjudicial offices elected statewide. The others are Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wyoming and Mississippi, which had the nation’s first two black senators in the 1870s when those seats were chosen by legislators rather than popularly elected.
Just making it to the general election puts Smith, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, in rare political company. The only previous minority candidate to have won a major party’s nomination for statewide office in Missouri was Alan Wheat – a black former Democratic congressman from Kansas City who lost the 1994 Senate race to former Republican governor John Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s son, Jay Ashcroft, is running against Smith.
“Race never came up, so I brought it up,” Wheat said of his campaign. “I knew it was on people’s minds, and I wanted to openly discuss it so that any questions people had about it could be answered and satisfied.”
Smith, a longtime TV news reporter and anchor in St. Louis, has taken a more reserved approach when addressing the topic. Although she spoke generally with the AP about making the political system more inclusive, she frequently changed the subject when asked about the historical ramifications of her campaign. Campaign manager Kirk Clay said she does not talk about race on the campaign trail, either.
Smith and West Virginia auditor candidate Mary Ann Claytor are the only black candidates for statewide office who will appear on the ballot in November as major party nominees in the 10 states where no minority has ever won such a race. Four American Indian candidates are running for statewide office in the Dakotas. All are Democrats.
Statewide posts aren’t the only elected positions in which minority representation has lagged. An AP analysis published in June found non-Hispanic whites make up a little over 60 percent of the U.S. population but hold more than 80 percent of all congressional and state legislative seats.
Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA, said progress for minorities on the statewide level has stalled since a wave of moderate, black officials was elected in the 1980s.
While statewide elected officials often climb the political ladder after first getting elected to local offices, Sawyer said white candidates are more likely than minorities to follow that pipeline. Minority candidates have enjoyed more success in local elections in areas with large numbers of black or Hispanic residents, he said, and those offices don’t always offer a clear transition to a statewide job.
Artur Davis, a black, former four-term congressman in Alabama, said race was a “continual factor” in his unsuccessful bid to win the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010. Davis said he considered it “coded” language when his opponent and others suggested he couldn’t win statewide in Alabama, where more than a quarter of the population is black.
“It’s very challenging to go from representing a primarily African-American district to a statewide environment in the South,” Davis said. “Once you become identified or tabbed politically as a spokesperson for a race, it obviously becomes very difficult to broaden your political appeal beyond that race.”
Other hurdles cited by candidates, political scientists and other experts include the expense of running for office, minority candidates’ tendency to run as Democrats even in strongly Republican-leaning states and the lack of minorities in elected office who could help others break into politics.
Beyond the 10 states that have never elected a minority in a nonjudicial statewide race, six others had been included on the list before backing Barack Obama for president — Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
There is no official list of minority officeholders or candidates because most states don’t track by race, and even the definition of minority can vary. For example, South Dakota previously elected two Lebanese-American candidates as U.S. senators. The U.S. Census Bureau classifies those of Middle Eastern and North African descent as white rather than minorities, and the Senate’s website doesn’t include them on its list of minorities to serve in the chamber.
Of the states where voters have elected minority candidates to statewide office, several picked lieutenant governors who ran on a ticket with a white candidate. Kentucky only last year elected its first black candidate to statewide office. That was Republican Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who ran with Gov. Matt Bevin.
Claytor, the auditor candidate in West Virginia, said there’s “probably always a chance” some voters might not pick her because of her race. But she said she was accepted while working in the auditor’s office and now is stressing voters should choose based on candidates’ qualifications.
“Would you rather them have specific governmental accounting knowledge, or are you going to hold these things against them that has nothing to do with performing the job?” she asked.
In 2008, Denise Juneau became the first American Indian woman in the nation elected to statewide office when she won her campaign for Montana superintendent of public instruction.
Juneau, who is now running for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, said the country has a long way to go before the minorities in public office are reflective of the population. But she said it’s important minority candidates break barriers. At least in her case, Juneau said her success made the hurdle appear a little less daunting for others who might someday seek to follow in her footsteps.
“This is a game-changer about the perspective of what’s possible for their future,” she said.
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