Jeannine Lee Lake decided to run for Congress after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election because she wanted to show her teenage daughter that she was willing to take a stand against Trump’s pejorative comments about women and minorities. Lake, a 48-year-old black woman, said she ran for her daughter, and for her nieces and nephews.
“This president has disregarded us and placed us in a category that is beneath and inferior,” she told The Atlantic in an interview. Lake is part of a movement of women candidates and people of color running for political office for the very first time, and on May 8, she beat five other Democrats in her primary bid for Indiana’s 6th congressional district. But she noticed something strange: Lake won without ever hearing from party leadership. She’s not alone.
Democratic leaders have repeatedly declared that African American women are “the backbone” of the party. But when some of those same women run and win their primary bids for Congress, they haven’t had so much as a phone call from establishment leaders. In interviews with The Atlantic, five black women candidates who won their primaries said they still haven’t heard from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the body that works to elect Democrats to the House. “It’s the height of hypocrisy,” Lake told me. “We bring millions of votes into these campaigns, and we’re gettin’ no love.”
The DCCC tends to only support candidates who can show they have strong community support and enough funds to stay afloat on their own. “Every day we are working to empower candidates and their campaigns to compete and win across the largest House battlefield in over a decade,” a DCCC aide told The Atlantic in a statement. “Ultimately, our job is to take back the House, and that requires identifying the most competitive districts and focusing our resources and time where they will go the furthest.”
To be fair, the Democrats are facing a Republican party that is almost unrecognizable from even 2016: A candidate who has ties to multiple white-nationalist figures, Corey Stewart, won the GOP primary in Virginia on Tuesday, and on Thursday, RNC chair Ronna McDaniel suggested on Twitter that the party only has room for Republicans who embrace Trump’s agenda. In this climate, the Democrats are trying to find a strategy that will help them win back the House. And right now, that strategy is to focus on battleground states and districts, and focus on offering an economic message: a strategy that inadvertently is leaving these black women out.
The women I spoke with are all running in heavily Republican districts where Democrats haven’t won for several years, and in some cases, decades. Democrats in these places may be wondering why their party’s national leaders aren’t working harder to change that, especially after what was, to them, a shocking presidential election in 2016. But these areas aren’t on the DCCC’s “battlefield list,” which contains 104 districts the campaign body is targeting in 2018. It’s standard procedure in other words, for the DCCC not to reach out to the candidates who are running longshot campaigns.
But the political climate this year is far from standard for Democrats: There has been an influx of women and first-time candidates running for the House of Representatives, and 22 of them are non-incumbent black women. More than 600 African American women are running nationwide, according to this newly compiled database. New energy on the left has helped Democrats overall pull off surprising wins in places like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. The Democrats have to figure out how to harness and direct that energy: They have to determine whether, and how much, to encourage newcomer candidates as part of a broader effort to mobilize black voters and rally their base. They also must decide whether they should be willing to take more of a chance on non-establishment candidates in a year when it seems like all bets are off. What they end up choosing to do could shape the future of the party—and chart a new political course for the country.