WASHINGTON — Democrats lost arguably their most prominent presidential candidate of color Tuesday when Kamala Harris suddenly ended her campaign, leaving the party’s upper echelon of contenders — including all of those currently qualified for the next debate — entirely white.
It’s a stark new reality that has left many leading progressive activists disappointed, upset and concerned that the 2020 field is not reflecting an increasingly diverse Democratic base, harming the party’s chances to defeat President Donald Trump in next year’s general election.
“How can we be the party of social justice, how can we be the party of black voters, how can we be the party of change, if we are not embracing the shifts happening in our electorate and demographics?” said Jessica Morales Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action, a nonprofit group that advocates for domestic workers.
Democrats, she added, “should feel ashamed of ourselves.”
Harris, the first South Asian American and second African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, had been hailed as a rising star by party elites and donors in the lead-up to the 2020 race as she sought to become the first black female president. But aside from her standout performance in the first Democratic debate in Miami, she struggled to gain traction in a crowded field.
Her shock departure means five of the remaining 15 Democratic candidates are nonwhite: Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
None of them, however, receive much support from Democratic voters in national or early-state polls, and few party insiders think any of them have a chance to win the nomination.
As of Tuesday, none of those candidates had reached the polling or donor thresholds necessary to qualify for the next debate, either. (Harris had qualified but now won’t participate.)
If none are able to do so by next week’s deadline, Democrats say it will be a galling development — especially amid the surge of attention paid to the candidacy of former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg after he unexpectedly began his own campaign last month. Bloomberg is not expected to qualify for the next debate, though he has experienced a bump of support in some polls following his announcement and multimillion-dollar spending spree on TV ads.
“It’s hard to watch as the Democratic field has changed from the most diverse in history to one where white billionaires are jumping in at half-time in hopes of buying their way into the White House,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group that advocates for women of color.
Even after Harris’ departure, the 2020 Democratic primary is still diverse compared to most recent presidential fields: It has a record number of women running, includes the first openly gay candidate in Pete Buttigieg, and one if its leading contenders, Bernie Sanders, is Jewish.
But racial diversity is especially important within the party, not least because black and Latino voters have become an increasingly critical part of the Democrats’ coalition in over the past few election cycles. According to the Pew Research Center, from 1997 to 2017 the share of whites within the party dropped 16 points, from 75% to 59%. Over that same 20-year span, the share of the nonwhite vote grew to more than 40%.
Consequently, persuading those individuals to vote has become a bigger and bigger part of the party’s political strategy — but some Democrats fear that a white nominee would not be able to effectively inspire these voters to turn our next November to beat Trump.
“Voters of color, particularly women, are the strongest and most reliable Democratic voters,” Allison added. “Yet Democrats continue to fail in investing in candidates who most appeal to its base. The eventual nominee needs to do more than offer token support or think that he or she can throw a few poll-tested talking points our way.”
Other liberal leaders were just as harsh.
“No matter your candidate, you have to recognize that going from the most diverse field ever in January to a potentially all-white debate stage in December is catastrophic,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the grassroots progressive group Indivisible.
Concerns about the absence of leading nonwhite candidates have percolated for months inside the Democratic Party, with some activists flummoxed by a field dominated by white candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, former Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg.
That creates a problem for the party, according to some grassroots advocates, who say the image of an all-white field discourages participation from some members of the black, Asian and Latino community.
“It’s going to be hard for people to come out when they don’t see themselves represented,” said Kerri Evelyn Harris, a former liberal candidate for Senate in Delaware and grassroots organizer. “We’re going to hear the same thing when we knock on doors: How do they represent me? How do they know my struggle?”
Harris, however, also emphasized that she thought the right white candidate could still inspire all parts of the Democratic coalition to turn out during next year’s election.
And other liberals say that although they wish the field was more diverse, concerns about the effect on the general election are overblown. They argue candidates like Harris failed to break through in a Democratic primary in part because they failed to gain traction among black or Latino voters — and it’s unclear why candidates who didn’t attract much support in a primary would perform well with those voters in a general election.
African Americans in the Democratic primary have thrown much of their support Biden and, to a much lesser extent, Warren and Sanders.
“When the party’s nonwhite base isn’t supporting nonwhite candidates, I don’t know why people are surprised when the candidates on stage are white,” said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular liberal blog Daily Kos.
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