When Kimberly Walker filed her paperwork to run as a Democrat representing Florida’s 12th Congressional District, she was concerned about how voters might react to her.
A veteran of the Army and Air Force whose family tree has been rooted in the Sunshine State for more than a century, the 51-year-old knew she would be the first openly gay, Black woman sent to the Capitol if elected to Congress. But any excitement over that possibility was overshadowed by worry that who she is would cost her votes.
“I thought about how people would take it,” the former corrections officer turned software engineer said. “Would this be one of the reasons they decided to vote for me or not.” Florida’s 12th District, which includes all of Pasco and northern parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, is solidly Republican and hasn’t seen a Democrat occupy a congressional seat since its redistricting in 2011.
She decided to run anyway.
Walker joined a historic number of at least 130 Black women who decided to run for office this election cycle and is among the at least 113 Black women who are still active in their races, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Many of them, like Walker, stand to make history as a “first” while representing their state or district in Congress. But the unprecedented wave of candidates has yet to meet the financial support needed to launch and sustain campaigns from the time papers are filed to Election Day.
“For African Americans, I’ve found it hard to get endorsements especially on the national stage,” Walker said. “I think it’s kind of sad that looking at my policies, people are still banking on the amount of money I’ve raised.”
Money continues to be an issue for Walker as she heads into November against longtime incumbent Gus Bilirakis, whose campaign has raised over $1.4 million and raked in more than $300,000 in contributions in the last quarter alone, according to his latest quarterly campaign filing. Walker has raised just thousands since the beginning of her campaign through June, according to FEC data.
The striking contrast in the amount of money Walker raised in comparison to her opponent is emblematic of the fundraising challenges Black women face across party lines as they run for office in record numbers, according to Nadia Brown, author of “Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making.”
Even Black women in more competitive districts do not have the same money, upfront buy-in or networks as their White counterparts despite being in a critical voting bloc, especially to the Democratic party, Brown said.
The numbers bear out in what multiple candidates and experts said about their fundraising experience this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics gender and race researcher, Grace Haley, who compared fundraising data from the first two quarters of this election cycle to the first two fundraising quarters in 2018.
Fundraising overall is looking better for Black women in 2020 compared to 2018, but Black women across party lines raised significantly less money than White women. For example, 34 Black female Democratic House candidates in 2018 raised slightly more than $32 million in total, while the 76 this year raised nearly $67 million raised in the first three quarters, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those numbers, however, become less jaw-dropping when compared to White female candidates. Data shows that the 113 active Black women candidates running on all tickets raised nearly $81 million in the first three quarters compared to the nearly $811 million pulled in by their 379 active White women counterparts across party lines, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. More than $1.5 billion was raised by over 1,000 White men from all parties in the same timeframe.
Fundraising shows the same trajectory as the gender pay gap and mirrors who often runs and is ultimately elected to office, said Cynthia Wallace, 49, a Democratic candidate running for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.
The former 2008 Obama campaign volunteer has landed sought-after endorsements from major party players, such as Emily’s List, the National Organization for Women, and the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
A lot of support for Wallace poured in after she won 56 percent of her primary, she said, adding that the “viability hurdle” is probably higher for Black women.
“[Donors'] ability to take a chance seems to be more flexible for other candidates,” the longtime financial services worker said. “Other folks I’ve gotten on board have waited for polling.”
Most polls have Bishop in the lead, while others indicate that a narrow margin of triumph could be in Wallace’s grasp.
Wallace said it was challenging to focus on winning a primary while also trying to attract money to her campaign.
The forward momentum of Wallace’s race underscores what countless Black female candidates have expressed over the years, according to Brown.
“I talk with Black female candidates all over the country, and they all share the same problem: It’s fundraising. It’s getting access to networks and to donors, and it’s a great disappointment with the party for Republicans or Democrats,” she said. “They wish that the party would get involved much sooner.”
Candidates often need help when they’re trying to get through their primaries to get their names out to voters, Brown said. That can be a costly endeavor.
Putting together a list of who to contact for financial support can be a difficult task for Black women candidates if they don’t normally dine or socialize with large-dollar donors, many said.
“Black women have just been shut out of large-money networks,” Brown said. “They’re not invited to the table where big money donations are happening.”
Marquita Bradshaw, 46, said she had $2 dollars in her checking account when she filed her papers for her Tennessee Senate candidacy.
The 12 Black women vying for Senate seats this election cycle raised nearly $2.7 million in the first three quarters of this year — an amount easily dwarfed by the more than $737 million raised by the 125 White men running for Senate or the $403 million raised by the 47 White women, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Bradshaw, an environmental justice advocate, said most of her network consists of working-class people and friends who don’t have the means to max out for her campaign — even with the chance of her making more history.
“There isn’t a playbook of how to elect a Black woman,” she said.
Bradshaw and other Democratic Black female candidates said they have been heartened by the number of small-dollar donations they have been able to receive from new political givers and close circles.
Wallace said her mother started writing a check every month to help her achieve her political ambition while others have tapped into or exhausted any circle they have ever been part of.
Pat Timmons-Goodson, 66, a Democratic candidate running to represent North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District, said low-dollar donors in her district, across the state and even in different parts of the country have satisfied fundraising goals in a race that could be the state’s most competitive congressional race.
Timmons-Goodson said she did not fully appreciate the extent to which money is needed even though she has run in multiple judicial races.
She and other candidates said that dialing for donations as small as $25 or less at times can be tedious but worthwhile, even though they often work harder for less, according to Brown.
“White male candidates can do two or three big fundraisers and have that be sufficient,” she said of her research. “Black women are doing two to three times more [for smaller amounts.]”
Black female candidates face unique fundraising hurdles compared to other candidates — in districts that are considered both unwinnable and winnable for their parties. But, they’re willing to face that challenge, according Brown’s research.
Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood, the first woman to represent Illinois’s 14th Congressional District following her victory in 2018, said she is excited to see the record number of Black women running for office, noting that some have been able to gain support from legacy institutions in the process.
Outside groups spent more than $18 million in races involving Black female candidates the first three quarters this election cycle compared to the more than $401 million for White women and over $668 million for White men, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democratic and Republican institutions such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund cut six-figure checks earlier this month for TV ads in her district.
Elliott would be first Black person elected to Congress from Arkansas.
Many Black female candidates in this cycle are in areas that seem out of reach for their respective party. But remaining steadfast in those areas could eventually lead voters to catch on, according to Brown.
“Black women get things done on shoestring budgets,” she said. “Imagine what they would be able to do if they were given a fighting chance.”
Walker has faith that her family-run and thinly-financed Florida race still has a chance.
Bradshaw, the Tennessee Senate candidate, said it is a matter of seeing Black women not just as a voting bloc but also as formidable political candidates.
“We’re in the 21st century, and we’re still talking about first Black woman to do something,” she said. “We need to make sure we have true representation, especially in the federal level.”