HORN LAKE, Miss. — Mike Espy and Jaime Harrison, two of the five Black Senate candidates in the South this year, may belong to different political generations, but they both came up in a Democratic Party where African-American politicians didn’t talk directly about race in campaigns against white opponents.
But there was Mr. Harrison this month, speaking before more than 250 cars at a drive-in rally in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, explicitly urging a mix of white and Black supporters to right the wrongs of the state’s past.“The very first state to secede from the union,” Mr. Harrison said to a cacophony of blaring horns, “because we will be the very first state in this great country of ours that has two African-American senators serving at the very same time — and you will make that happen.”
A day later, speaking to an equally diverse audience in northern Mississippi, Mr. Espy called his Republican opponent, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, “an anachronism.”
“She is someone who believes in going back to the old days,” he said, lashing his Republican rival for hailing the Civil War-era South and refusing to take a stand in the debate over Mississippi’s state flag, which until this summer included the Confederate battle emblem. “We need a Mississippi that’s more inclusive, that’s more diverse, more welcoming.”
While it has been overshadowed by the presidential race, a political shift is underway in the South that could have a lasting impact well past this election. Democrats have nominated several Black Senate candidates in a region where they’ve often preferred to elevate moderate whites, these contenders are running competitively in conservative states, and they’re doing so by talking explicitly about race.
Mr. Harrison, a onetime lobbyist and state party chair; Mr. Espy, the former agriculture secretary; and the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church and a Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, are each making Republicans nervous about seats that have not been competitive in decades. In Tennessee and Louisiana, where Mayor Adrian Perkins of Shreveport entered late in the race, Black Democratic Senate candidates have also emerged.
With two Black Republicans vying for seats, in Michigan and Rhode Island, there are a record seven major-party Black candidates running for the Senate this year.
It’s a remarkable roster in a part of the country that has both the highest concentration of African-American voters and a history of hostility to Black candidates running statewide — a resistance so strong that national Democrats for decades treated Black recruits as an afterthought at best.
While Black lawmakers have won House seats in majority-minority districts for decades across the region, they have a harder time capturing contested nominations and then winning white voters statewide. Of the six Black senators elected since Reconstruction, only one has come from the South: Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican, who was initially appointed to fill a vacancy. In the same period, just one Black governor has been elected in the South.
In the most promising Southern races, Democrats have largely supported white candidates, including this year in North Carolina, where the party recruited Cal Cunningham, a moderate former state legislator and military veteran, to challenge Senator Thom Tillis, a vulnerable Republican.
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“There’s still this Northern perception that this is the South,” said Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who for months has joined Mr. Espy in lobbying Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate minority leader, about the Mississippi race. “And I make the case you have to put in an investment if you want change. You can’t just say, ‘When y’all change we’ll come help you.’ That’s not how you build the party.”
Black Southerners say they’ve suffered from a political Catch-22, owing in part to trepidation from risk-averse national Democratic leaders. Until candidates were able to demonstrate that they could prevail, they found it difficult to raise the money necessary to be competitive.
Money has scarcely been a problem this year for Mr. Harrison, 44, who broke the record for most cash raised in a quarter. But until recently Mr. Espy, 66, and Mr. Warnock, 51, were not drawing near the fund-raising of Mr. Harrison, illustrating the enduring challenges Black candidates face when they are not running against Republican boogeymen like Senator Lindsey Graham.
Should any of them win, though, it would have a catalyzing effect, with more African-American candidates inspired to run beyond the confines of a predominantly Black district and party leaders facing pressure to get behind them instead of trying to clear the field for white candidates who may be perceived as safer bets.
“Success breeds success,” said Stacey Abrams, a likely candidate for Georgia governor in 2022 whose competitive race for that office two years ago illustrated both the promise and lingering challenges in the region.
Black Democrats are taking notice, said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin. “I think more people are going to step up,” said Mr. Barnes, who may run for the Senate in two years, lamenting how many Black politicians had been “relegated to favorable quote-unquote congressional or legislative districts.”
More strikingly, the willingness of Black candidates to highlight racial issues and their own history-making potential reflects significant shifts in the region’s politics: the more tolerant racial views of white Southerners, particularly those who are younger, and the expectation among progressive white and Black people alike that politicians will align themselves with social justice at such a tense time.
“Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, the flag,” said Mr. Espy, referring to three Black people whose killings this year galvanized nationwide protests. “It’s all around us, so you might as well meet the moment.”
Mr. Espy also made clear that, in a state whose white voters are heavily Republican, his political calculus depended on it. He can win only with robust turnout among young Black voters in America’s most heavily Black state per capita, and they are more likely to vote if they know he is an ally.
For Mr. Harrison, who’s running in a state with fewer Black people than Mississippi but where white voters are more moderate, the goal is to inspire voters of all races to demonstrate that South Carolina has changed.
Noting that he would serve in the seat once held by John C. Calhoun, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond, Mr. Harrison told supporters that they could “close the book on the Old South and write a brand-new book called ‘The New South.’”
In Georgia, Mr. Warnock is competing in what may be the most promising state and the most complex Senate race in the Democrats’ Southern offensive.
He is running in a special election for the seat formerly held by Johnny Isakson, a Republican. There was not a traditional primary election for the seat: Instead, Mr. Warnock is competing in an open race against candidates in both parties on Nov. 3, with the top two finishers proceeding to a runoff election if no candidate attains a majority.
Polls show that Mr. Warnock, who has repeatedly aired ads featuring him in the church made famous by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appears to be on track to finish first in the field, outpacing two Republicans who have been battling each other. Less clear is whether he could sustain that advantage in a one-on-one January runoff in which Republicans would unite against him and spend tens of millions of dollars on attack ads.
Michael L. Thurmond, the Democratic executive of populous DeKalb County, said it remained a serious challenge for any Democrat to assemble a winning statewide coalition in Georgia. Mr. Thurmond said he had cautioned other Democrats that driving up turnout in the Atlanta metro area would not, on its own, deliver an electoral majority for the party.
“Beyond 285, the water’s cold and deep — that’s just it for Democrats,” Mr. Thurmond said, referring to the highway that rings the state’s booming population center. “Turn out the base, but you must be able to appeal to moderate and conservative white voters.”
But Mr. Thurmond, who was the party’s Senate nominee in 2010, said the scale of funding available to Georgia Democrats had changed drastically in a decade.
“It’s light years from when I ran in 2010,” he said. “The main difference, of course, is the huge outpouring of national support.”
For Mr. Warnock, that support was somewhat tardy in arriving. He entered the race in late January, quietly anointed by Mr. Schumer as the national party’s favorite.
Yet months passed without much investment from national Democrats. Polls found Mr. Warnock languishing behind other Democratic candidates, including the son of Joseph I. Lieberman, the former senator and Democratic vice-presidential candidate.
In some quarters, suspicion began to take root that Mr. Warnock had been recruited into the race to help stimulate Black turnout for the benefit of other candidates — like Joseph R. Biden Jr.
It was only after he began airing television ads in August that Mr. Warnock began to consolidate support from Democratic voters and take the lead.
Mr. Warnock said in an interview that his candidacy was built on a “Georgia groundswell,” but he credited national Democrats with giving help in some important ways, like an endorsement he received from former President Barack Obama.
While he hopes to win the Senate seat outright on Nov. 3, Mr. Warnock said he expected the party to be “very supportive” if the race goes to a runoff.
But some of his allies were open about their impatience. Steve Phillips, a Democratic donor who has pressed the party to embrace more candidates of color, said he had asked Senate Majority PAC, the main Democratic outside-spending vehicle, to give Mr. Warnock an early boost. But Mr. Phillips found it difficult to get a commitment: “It’s always hard to pin those guys down,” he said.
Mr. Phillips said he was convinced that Democratic groups would move aggressively on the Georgia race once it reached a runoff. But he said the party was still arranging its electoral priorities through a fairly narrow calculus — one that did not favor recruits who are people of color.
“There’s lingering implicit bias about what types of candidates are strong and what types of candidates are weaker,” Mr. Phillips said, adding, “Things are moving forward, but not with the speed that they could if the people who control the largest checkbooks invested in the way they could.”
Mr. Espy was just as blunt about party leaders. “They need to do more,” he said, urging those who extol the importance of Black voters to “back up their words.”
In Georgia, Mr. Warnock said he was unsure how focused voters were on the potential that they could deliver a historic breakthrough for Black representation in the South. But for Democrats, he said, it was past time to discard traditional assumptions about how to compete in the region.
“We are clearly living in a different time,” he said. “The old math simply does not apply.”