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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Could Harris Help Dems Win Senate Majority?

Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate may help Democrats win a majority of the U.S. Senate. This is predicated, of course, on Harris boosting African American voter turnout in key senate races. It could happen.

As Perry Bacon, Jr. writes at FiveThirtyEight:

I don’t want to downplay Harris’s Indian American roots. But Black voters are expected to account for about 13 percent of the expected 2020 electorate, a much bigger share than Asian Americans (5 percent). Black voters are also a particularly sizable and important bloc in key swing states such as Florida (13 percent), Michigan (13 percent), North Carolina (23 percent), Pennsylvania (11 percent) and Wisconsin (5 percent.) I am addressing Harris’s potential appeal to Black voters specifically not because I think Black voters are likely to be particularly energized by a Black woman like Harris, but rather because much of the conversation around the vice presidential selection has implied that picking a Black person will create extra enthusiasm for the ticket with Black voters.

The percentage of Black voting-eligible people who cast ballots was significantly higher in 2008 (65 percent) and 2012 (66 percent), when there was a Black candidate on the ticket, compared to 2004 and 2016 (both around 60 percent) when there was not. Some political science research shows that Black people vote at higher rates when a Black candidate is on the ballot, although that finding is somewhat contested, and that research is about voting for a Black candidate at the top of the ticket, not a white candidate with a Black running mate.

So it’s not a crazy idea that Harris might boost the ticket with Black voters. It has some empirical basis. But I think the stronger case, at least based on what we know right now, is that she won’t have much of an effect in terms of Black voters.

Why not? First of all, while it happened in 2008 and 2012, it’s just really hard for Democrats to get that much more support from Black voters, who even in elections like 2004 or 2016 vote at fairly high rates (significantly higher than Asian American or Hispanic voters) and overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

Of course the difference between “a fairly high rate” and a game-changing voter turnout can be as small as 2 percent. Imagine, on the other hand, Black voter turnout, had Biden picked a white running mate. It’s not hard to see how an all-white ticket could dampen Black voter turnout in a year characterized by massive nation-wide protests against racial injustice.

Take a look at the U.S. Senate races map below, nicked from Amber Phillips’s Aug. 7th article, “The most competitive Senate races of 2020” at WaPo’s The Fix. Note that incumbent Democratic Senate candidates in Alabama and Michigan, Sens. Doug Jones and Gary Peters, respectively, are rated “potentially-competitive.”

Does Harris on the ticket help Sens. Jones and Peters? My hunch is that it could help Jones, who owes his election to the voter mobilization efforts of African American women in Alabama. Jones ought to be a bit more optimistic today. If Harris gives the ticket a bump in Michigan, Peters could also benefit, even  though he has an African American Republican opponent. For Peters, much depends on pro-Democratic GOTV in Detroit.

But the greatest benefit Harris may provide in Senate races could be in increasing Black voter turnout in some of the 13 Republican-held seats now rated “potentially-competive.” If Democrats put some extra resources into African American GOTV in Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Houston and Dallas, they may reap a couple of upsets in senate races.

There will be skepticism about Harris’s record as a prosecutor from some Black Lives Matter activists and supporters, some of which will be offset by widening the zone of comfort for voters who like her ‘tough on crime’ record. If Harris can recapture some of the magic of her presidential campaign kick-off, Republican senate candidates will have even more to worry about.

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