Cheri Beasley is well aware of the challenges facing Black women who run for statewide office.
“I know what it's like to hear the doubters and those who are skeptical that people of color can't win, because it's not what we're used to or who we envision in positions of power,” she said in an interview with NBC News.
The former judge has made two successful runs for statewide judicial positions, and this year she is running for North Carolina’s open Senate seat, joining a cohort of Black women looking to make history.
Black women’s representation has steadily increased in Congress and state legislatures, but they have still struggled to win statewide races. No Black woman has ever been elected governor, and there are no Black women serving in the U.S. Senate after Kamala Harris vacated her seat to become vice president.
That could change this year.
Beasley is one of three Black women — all Democrats — who have established themselves as early front-runners in statewide primaries, including Stacey Abrams, who is making another bid for Georgia governor, and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who is challenging Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Five Black women are running for governor, just shy of the 2018 record of six. Between 16 and 20 Black women are currently, or considered potential, Senate candidates, which would break the record of 13 Black women Senate candidates set in 2020, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
They include Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Danielle Allen of Massachusetts, Deidre DeJear of Iowa, and Mia McLeod of South Carolina. Conservative commentator Kathy Barnette is also vying for the GOP Senate nomination in Pennsylvania.
Abrams, Demings and Beasley are among the few already favored to win their primaries. That’s especially rare considering where they’re running, said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.
“When we talk about where Black women have been successful in statewide contests, it has been outside of the South,” she said.
EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler noted she didn’t see many examples of Black political officeholders, especially Black women, while growing up in Mississippi.
“There was not a Stacey Abrams. There was not a Val Demings,” said Butler, the first Black president of the Democratic-leaning group that supports female candidates who back abortion rights.
Persistent racism, sexism and the perception that Black women (who typically run as Democratic candidates) can’t win Republican states have stymied statewide hopefuls in primaries in the past.
Beasley, Abrams and Demings have already overcome some traditional obstacles, including difficulties fundraising and winning support from party leaders.
Abrams has yet to file a fundraising report since launching her campaign in December, but she raised a whopping $27.6 million in her unsuccessful run for governor in 2018. Demings has raised $13.5 million as of Sept. 30. Beasley announced Tuesday that she raised $2.1 million in the last three months of 2021, bringing her total haul to nearly $4.9 million.
All three have tapped into energy among grassroots Democratic donors. Their early success has also been years in the making.
“These aren't newcomers,” said Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America PAC, which supports Black women candidates. She said their candidacies are the culmination of years of efforts to support Black women running for state and local offices so they can eventually run statewide.
Abrams served as the Democratic leader in the state House before running for governor in 2018. Demings, Orlando’s first Black female police chief, built a national profile as a House manager during then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. And Beasley was the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, losing her race for a full term as chief justice by just 401 votes in 2020.
“This race has been about building upon relationships that we've long ago established across the state,” Beasley said.
Noting Beasley’s consistent lead in polling, state Sen. Jeff Jackson dropped out of the Democratic primary last month, backing her as his party’s “presumptive nominee.” Beasley said “having clarity” in the race allows Democrats to focus squarely on the general election.
Despite her personal success in clearing the primary field, she said that challenges facing Black women candidates persist.
“There really are the financial and political barriers that prevent people from running,” Beasley said, later adding, ”We would have more than zero African American women in the Senate if there were no challenges to running.”
Along with fundraising challenges, Democratic leaders don’t always think to recruit Black women, advocates said.
“There's a certain lineup order of who can run statewide and a lot of times Black women's names aren't in that lineup,” said Stefanie Brown James, co-founder and executive director of the Collective PAC.
Brown James said early support from groups like hers is key to elevating Black women candidates.
Abrams, Demings and Beasley still face competitive races in November. Trump carried Florida and North Carolina in 2020, while Joe Biden narrowly won Georgia. But there’s hope 2022 could be a historic year, despite the political headwinds that Democrats face.
“I wouldn't have taken the position if I wasn't optimistic that we could continue to make a difference,” said Butler of EMILY’s List.
“I am optimistic that this is going to be an incredibly important year for Black women,” she added.