Beyond Racial Bias – Why so few African American House Members run for Senate

The article, “The House as a Stepping Stone to the Senate: Why Do So Few African American House Members Run?” by Gbemende Johnson, Bruce Oppenheimer, and Jennifer Selin, appears in the April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Here, the authors summarize its contents:

Although the House of Representatives is a commonly recognized pathway to the Senate, only four African American House members have run for the Senate since the passage of the 17th Amendment, and none were successful. In addition, neither of the current African American senators, Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) ran in Senate elections as House Members. Why do so few African American House members become Senate candidates? While common explanations for the small number of African American House members who have run for the Senate include racial bias and a public hesitancy to vote for African Americans in a statewide contest, our analysis shows that the relationship between race and the decision to run is considerably more complex and nuanced. We examined all House members and Senate elections between 1992 and 2008 and found that contextual and structural factors linked to race, such as state population, ideological extremity, and the ability to raise campaign funds, play a substantial role in understanding who runs for the U.S. Senate.

House members from large states are less likely to run for the Senate in part because Senate races in larger states are usually more expensive and competitive. State size is particularly relevant for Black House members, as the 19 least populous states have never elected an African American House member. Because the African American population and most Black House members are concentrated in the more populous states, there are few Senate seats for which Black House candidates can feasibly consider running.

We also find that ideologically extreme House members are less likely to run. State populations are usually more moderate than district populations, meaning ideologically extreme members are often “out of step” with a state populace and therefore disadvantaged in a state-wide race. This disproportionately affects Black House members, who tend to be more liberal than Non-Black House members.

Finally, Senates races are highly expensive contests, and the ability to fundraise plays a key role in the decision to launch a Senate campaign. House members who are more successful at fund raising are more likely to run for the Senate. The ability to finance a campaign is particularly relevant for Black House members, as Black members raise less campaign funds on average than Non-Black House members. One potential cause for this discrepancy is that Black House members usually represent districts with lower median incomes.

In summary, African American House members face barriers in running for Senate seats beyond racial bias. The influence of state size, ideology, and campaign funds all work to decrease the propensity of African-American House members to run for the Senate. For politically ambitious African Americans, the most viable stepping stone to the U.S. Senate does not appear to be the U.S. House of Representatives.

About the Authors: Gbemende Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Government at Hamilton College, Bruce Oppenheimer is a Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University and Jennifer Selin is a graduate fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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