Indiana: Black women, the ‘pink wave,’ and harbingers of our political future

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read more dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

Indiana has solidly supported Republican nominees for president since 1980, with Barack Obama the lone exception, in 2008. Conservative voters and politicians in the state are mostly aligned on economic issues, such as keeping corporate taxes low and deregulation; social issues are more divisive. President Trump, who has largely campaigned in the state on economic issues and whose support in the state has declined overall, has stumped for GOP Senate nominee and businessman Mike Braun in one of the country’s tightest midterm races. The horse-race between Braun and Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly has attracted the lion’s share of coverage from state and national news outlets.

By comparison, many journalists seem to have treated the state’s Fifth District Congressional race, between three-term Republican incumbent Susan Brooks and Democratic challenger Dee Thornton, as a foregone conclusion. A Democrat has not won the district since 1993. The race has attracted just a fraction of the coverage of Indiana’s Senate contest. The Indianapolis Star noted in July that several Democratic candidates on ballots this November “continue to show fundraising success despite facing difficult odds of winning districts that typically vote Republican,” but offers little about Thornton save for her fundraising total. “A woman will win that race, and Rep. Brooks has a solid advantage,” according to CNN, which rated the district “Solid Republican.”

But treating the Thornton/Brooks race as a done deal overlooks its value for reporters and their readers. Indiana’s Fifth District is evidence of the so-called “pink wave,” where women are running for office and winning primaries in record numbers. Both Brooks and Thornton, accomplished and qualified candidates, have signaled that being women provide them with a unique vantage point and a set of skills that enable them to understand the needs of voters. Thornton bested four men in a crowded Democratic primary that speaks to the party’s growing strength; she beat her nearest challenger by 10 percentage points. The district, and specifically Thornton’s candidacy, is a lens on Indiana’s potential future as a purple state, and an indicator of voters’ enthusiasm for women candidates and the values and policy priorities they prize.

Thornton is a Black woman candidate running in a district that is 84 percent White, and typically Republican. Given the national climate of politically contentious culture wars, we see that voters are looking for members of marginalized groups to represent different voices and communities in Congress.

Women candidates are stereotyped, research shows, as being better suited to deal with “compassion” issues such as health care, families and children, and education, and are seen as more liberal than men. This research also shows that voters who value honesty and ethics in government are more likely to vote for women. Furthermore, voters tend to elect women when they see the government as corrupt, and view women candidates and politicians as the favorable choice to clean up the mess that male politicians have made.

Thornton is a Black woman candidate running in a district that is 84 percent White, and typically Republican. Given the national climate of politically contentious culture wars, we see that voters are looking for members of marginalized groups to represent different voices and communities in Congress. This is evident in Thornton’s primary victory as well as the other successful primary campaigns of Black women in majority White districts.

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“Their races are in districts that probably will be won by their GOP opponents,” wrote The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott, in a blog post that highlighted Thornton alongside several other black women candidates. “However, for the groups and individuals that support getting more black women in office, their races are not in vain.”

Black women candidates and legislators, according to my research, are most likely to focus on issues of concern to the most marginalized populations and to build consensus during legislative decision-making. Black women often advocate for issues and people at the margins of society. Because of their own intersectional identities—at the nexus of sexism, racism, and classism—Black women candidates and elected officials disavow single-axis views on policy that are often the product of blind spots (as opposed to willful neglect or malice) to multi-marginalized groups.

My work on preventative domestic violence legislation details how Black women legislators challenged prevailing practices of legal reporting on alleged abusers. The women in my research diverged from White women legislators who sought to advocate for women but failed to see how having strict policies may unintentionally harm communities that are already overpoliced. Conversely, Black men legislators were unable to offer policy prescriptions that addressed the needs of families caught in the cycle of abuse because they often focused solely on the alleged abuser (most commonly, a man) and not the larger units impacted by violence. Looking at preventative domestic violence legislation through a race-only or gender-only lens historically had negative outcomes on women of color and their families as well as neighborhoods.

In places such as Indiana, where divisive politics flourish and the controlling party is splintered, voters are looking to women to heal some of these wounds. Having perspectives from Black women in elected office provides the legislature with deeper understanding of who policies may help or hinder. I contend that voters are showing preferences for women—and particularly women of color, even in districts where ethno-racial minorities make a slim percentage of the population—because the country has an appetite for advancing legislation on social issues, but led from a more inclusive perspective.

In May, the Indianapolis Star published an op-ed by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a lawyer who runs the IndyPolitics.org blog. “Although you wouldn’t know it from the campaign commercials on TV, there are a lot more candidates and races on the ballot other than the Senate race between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Mike Braun,” wrote Shabazz, who took particular note of Thornton and Sixth District Democratic candidate Jeannine Lee Lake. “What I find most intriguing about Thornton and Lee…is that you have two African-American women running in very Republican areas as Democrats.”

Large numbers of successful women candidates are often the physical manifestation of voters challenging the traditional positions of both political parties. In Indiana and beyond, it’s important for journalists to view races with women as an indicator of the future of political parties, voter preferences, and policy priorities.

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Nadia Brown is a professor at Purdue University, and received her PhD in Political Science from Rutgers University. Her book Sisters in the Statehouse: Black women and Legislative Decision Making was awarded the National Conference of Black Political Scientists’ 2015 WEB DuBois Distinguished Book Award. She is the co-editor with Professor Sarah Gershon of Distinct Identities, on the intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender in American Politics, and the co-lead editor of Politics, Groups and Identities. Her current research projects address the politics of appearance for Black women candidates and lawmakers.