If a “blue wave” does let Democrats seize the House, protect endangered Senate seats and win key governorships, it looks likely that the party will have African-American women to thank.
“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said last December on Twitter. In truth, the party has taken this loyal constituency for granted in the past – but surely cannot afford to do so now.
Perez’s acknowledgment came one day after African-American women did the impossible in deep-red Alabama: They provided the margin that gave Democrat Doug Jones a narrow victory over Republican Roy Moore for a vacant seat in the Senate.
There is no other way to read the result of that special election. Yes, Moore was a wretchedly awful candidate who had been accused of creepily approaching teen-aged girls when he was a grown man in his thirties. But he was a Republican running in Alabama, which should be enough to guarantee a win.
Indeed, despite Moore’s glaring flaws, exit polls showed that he won the support of 72 percent of white men who voted and 63 percent of white women. But black men, who made up 11 percent of the electorate, gave 93 percent of their votes to Jones. And black women – constituting a weighty 17 percent of those who went to the polls – cast an astounding 98 percent of their votes for the man now referred to as Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.
Jones beat Moore by a slim 1.5-percentage-point margin. If African-American women had been the tiniest bit less committed to the Democratic Party or less enthusiastic about voting, Jones would have lost.
The stage is set for black women to play a similarly decisive role in numerous high-profile races on Nov. 6.
Obviously, they can’t do much for Democrats such as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, which according to the 2010 census had a black population of just 1.2 percent; or Jon Tester of Montana, which has the smallest African-American population of any state in the union.
But consider a state like Missouri, where Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is shown by polls to be virtually tied with Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Missouri’s black population is roughly 12 percent. If African-American women do there what they did in Alabama – vote in larger-than-expected numbers and give Democrats their all-but-unanimous support – McCaskill looks likely to win re-election.
Or look at Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams is hoping to become the first black woman elected governor of any state. The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Republican Brian Kemp leading Abrams by 2 percentage points, which statistically makes the race a toss-up. But African-Americans constitute about 31 percent of Georgia’s population, and if they make up an even larger share of the electorate – as happened last December in next-door Alabama – Abrams has a clear path to victory.
My guess is that black women in Georgia will give at least as much support to Abrams as black women in Alabama gave to Jones. And I don’t want to hear any wailing and gnashing of teeth about “identity politics” – unless someone has an alternative explanation of why white men vote so lopsidedly in favor of white male candidates.
In Florida, polls show Democrat Andrew Gillum – running to become the state’s first African-American governor – with a slim but significant lead over Republican Ron DeSantis. If black women repeat their Alabama performance in the nearby Sunshine State, they can not only propel Gillum to a win but also drag Sen. Bill Nelson across the finish line in his tough re-election battle against Republican Rick Scott.
President Trump’s idea of appealing to black voters was having music superstar Kanye West come to the Oval Office and rant about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t have enough “male energy” to suit his taste. Going out on a limb here, I’m going to predict that that won’t work. I know a lot of black women who might want to give West a hug and get him some help, but none who would take his political advice.
The coordinated, nationwide GOP response -- suppressing the black vote -- seems likely to fail as well. Even the purging of some 50,000 voters, most of them black, from the rolls in Georgia is marginal given the state’s total population of more than 10 million.
Four hundred years of history have imbued African-American women with steely determination. We may well see the result when the midterm votes are counted.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.