NORTH AURORA, Ill. — Most of the room’s occupants looked nothing like Lauren Underwood, but no one seemed to care.
Ms. Underwood, the Democratic congressional nominee in northern Illinois’s pivotal 14th District, flowed effortlessly from person to person at a meet-and-greet last month, confident in her belief that she, a 31-year-old black woman, was best suited to represent a community that is overwhelmingly white.
“I learned to be a black woman in this community,” Ms. Underwood said. “This is my home, and the idea that I might not be a good fit is an idea I never gave a lot of consideration to.”
Kathy Birkett, a former school superintendent who came to the event to support Ms. Underwood, said the candidate’s ideas about health care and reducing gun violence are what helped her draw support from a cross-section of voters in the district.
“When you’re top notch, you’re top notch — and I don’t think that has anything to do with color,” she said.
A decade after the election of America’s first black president, Ms. Underwood and several other African-American, Hispanic and minority candidates for Congress are facing a major test this fall: whether they can win in districts where white voters make up the majority of the electorate. Like Barack Obama, these contenders — most of them Democrats — often strain to avoid explicit discussions of race out of fear of alienating white voters, which stands in contrast to the uncompromising insurgent challengers that have taken hold in the post-Obama era like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York House candidate, or Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.
Ms. Underwood and several other minority candidates in majority-white districts say they have not encountered overt racism aimed at their bids for office. But they also said their campaigns face distinct challenges: difficulty in finding initial support, a need to combat racial stereotypes, and most importantly, a lack of trust from even members of their own party that a minority candidate can succeed in a predominantly white district.
According to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, there are 14 self-identified racial minorities out of the nearly 60 party-backed Democrats in the most competitive House races. The number is either an impressive amount or frighteningly low, depending on who is asked. Party officials say the numbers are better than previous cycles, and point out nine minority candidates are running in majority-white districts. But others have complained the number is proof the party only supports nonwhite candidates in so-called “minority districts,” where nonwhite voters outnumber their white counterparts and therefore have more electoral power.
Separately, each of the 14 candidates has their own constituencies to impress, and they face varying degrees of viability come November. But together, the group is a cross-cultural fraternity united by a common thread: America’s fraught racial history. There’s the tiptoeing around certain topics with an overt racial element, several said. Questions about their name, background or appearance can be as common as ones regarding policy issues. There’s also concern about failing, a belief that any mistake from a minority candidate would be punished in a way that’s far worse than one from their white opponents.
“We have to be excellent,” said Ms. Underwood, who served as a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services before returning to her Illinois hometown to run against Representative Randy Hultgren, a four-term incumbent. “I recognize that we’re a trailblazer and we’re doing this historic thing, and we have to do it in a way that allows people to come behind us.”
Minority candidates “have to cross more T’s and dot more I’s,” said Colin Allred. “I know that.” Mr. Allred is a black 35-year-old former voting rights attorney and N.F.L. player who is running in Texas’ 32nd District, another mostly white community on the Democrats’ target list. He will face Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican who first assumed office in 1997.
The makeup of Congress skews disproportionately white, and among the minority House members, a large percentage represent gerrymandered districts made up predominantly of minority voters. (There are some exceptions, including black women on both sides of the aisle in Congress: Mia Love of Utah, a Republican whose district is 74 percent white, and Delaware’s Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat whose district is 62 percent white.)
During an interview in Mr. Allred’s suburban Dallas hometown — a district that is 48 percent white and 26 percent Hispanic — he said he has sidestepped some issues on the campaign trail in order to avoid being deemed “too black.”
“There’s some topics I have to talk about differently, and there’s some subjects where I’m probably not going to be the one to lead on the issue,” Mr. Allred said, declining to be more specific. “You have to be honest and say, ‘You know what, as a young black man I’m probably not going to be the flag-bearer for that.’”
Political recruitment experts and even some House candidates say there are so few minority Democratic candidates in majority-white areas in part because of a failure by party officials to recruit and develop a diverse bench. Official campaign arms like the D.C.C.C. often rely on indicators such as fund-raising and name recognition to determine viability, and candidates from historically marginalized backgrounds may have greater trouble meeting those thresholds, particularly in competitive swing districts that invite big-money candidates.
Kamau Marshall, the deputy national press secretary for the D.C.C.C., acknowledged a lack of historical investment by the Democratic Party in supporting minority candidates across the country, but said there has been recent improvement.
“In the past, the party hasn’t invested enough in minority candidates, but we’re in the process of fixing that,” Mr. Marshall said.
However, he added, there may be some places a minority candidate just does not make sense.
“I can’t see a candidate of color winning in a conservative area like North Dakota or South Dakota or Montana,” he said.
It is that assertion — that minority candidates likely cannot win in heavily white or rural areas — that inspires so much hand-wringing among grass-roots activists and people who recruit liberal candidates. While party strategists charged with electioneering may see such statements as political realism, outsiders said the sentiment places unnecessary limits on where minority candidates can run. (After this article was published Thursday, the D.C.C.C. said that Mr. Marshall was incorrect and that the group has been supporting nonwhite candidate in all parts of the country.)
On the Republican side, Ms. Love found high-profile success in Utah, though she has often tried to downplay the role of her personal identity in her campaign.
“I wasn’t elected because of the color of my skin; I wasn’t elected because of my gender,” Ms. Love said the night she was elected in 2014. “I was elected because of the solutions I put at the table.”
Some liberals also disagreed with Mr. Marshall’s sentiment. A’shanti Gholar is a political director for Emerge America, a candidate training and recruitment firm focused on helping Democratic women who want to run for office. She said that the D.C.C.C. often has a rigid view of where minority candidates can be successful, but added, “Just because this is what’s happened traditionally doesn’t always mean that’s what going to occur.”
Steven Horsford, a black former congressman from a majority-white Nevada district who is currently running to reclaim the seat after a 2014 defeat, said there “clearly needs to be more support of candidates from diverse backgrounds.”
“The more we can have the national party and the decision makers understand that this is really the future of our country,” Mr. Horsford said, “then we will be moving in the direction we need.”
President Trump’s election spurred legions of fresh liberal activism, and political groups like Emerge America, Higher Heights for America and The Collective PAC have taken a particular interest in the unique needs of minority candidates. Some problems posed to the political groups are cosmetic, such as how to guide voters through pronouncing an atypical name, or questions from black women about whether their natural hair texture will be unappealing to white voters. Other issues are structural — tied to the racial inequities that still exist across America.
Amanda Litman, the co-founder of a liberal recruitment firm called Run For Something, said her organization’s internal data shows racial disparities in the candidates who, after reaching out to the organization, decide to run for office. According to Ms. Litman, while people across racial groups show interest in running for office at equal rates, prospective candidates who are racial minorities are more likely to drop out of the process before formally entering the race.
“There’s that saying that a woman needs to be asked seven times to run for office, while a man will just tell you he’s running,” Ms. Litman said. “We think that applies, generally speaking, to most underrepresented communities.”
Ms. Underwood said she’s acutely aware of such difficulties. Although she was grateful to receive the support of the D.C.C.C. after her primary win in March, she made sure to clarify that such institutional support only came after she vanquished six male challengers in a primary contest.
(Ms. Underwood’s sister, Lindsey, is an editor in the Smarter Living section of The New York Times.)
Aftab Pureval, an Ohio native of Tibetan and Indian descent who is the Democratic nominee in a majority-white district near Cincinnati, said that when he first ran for office, the most common question he received was not about his policies or his platform, but about his name.
“I’d get asked, ‘What is an Aftab?’ Not, ‘Who is Aftab?’” Mr. Pureval said. In November, he will face Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican, in a competitive election being closely watched throughout the country.
“People thought I was an insurance company. I would get quacked at because people would think it would be funny to call me Aflac,” he said.
Regardless, the minority candidates all said running for office has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
Mr. Allred, in fact, said running for office has helped erase some tough memories of racial tension during his childhood in the 1980s. Back then, a teenage Mr. Allred and his high school friends used to avoid the Park Cities, a part of the Dallas metro area that was known for being unwelcoming to black residents and their children, he said.
Two decades later, that same area is home to some of his most vocal political supporters, who are now organizing and donating money to send that once-frightened black teenager to Congress.
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