Powered by recent wins, Democrats intensify push for diversity ahead of 2022

Democrats in three states are challenging the play-it-safe primary strategy.

Her party eked out two stunning wins in Georgia and shifted the power structure in Washington for the first time in a decade, but for her, it ended a bittersweet cycle. She lost the Democratic nomination in last year's Senate race to a prominent former state senator only to watch him fall short in the general election.

After incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis defeated Cal Cunningham, the Democratic challenger, by roughly 100,000 votes in a scandal-ridden race last fall, it reinforced her belief that the party as a whole should "recalibrate" its philosophy on who can win elections.

"(It) showed us unequivocally that we have to stop looking for this cookie-cutter version of a candidate for U.S. Senate in the South, who is a white male with military experience and not necessarily other lived experiences," Smith, who is Black and also a former state senator, told ABC News. "If we are the big tent party of inclusion that we say that we are, then we will stop using Black women as the most faithful, loyal voting bloc as the base of the party and allow us to be the face of the party in leadership."

Smith isn't the only one hoping to change the party's entrenched ways. Democrats in North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio, three states that are poised to be at the center of the battleground map in elections over the next two years, are challenging the play-it-safe primary strategy that has defined Democratic Party politics for decades.

Looking to the future while embracing the party's most recent past -- particularly the pair of Senate victories in Georgia -- these Democrats, who often feel overlooked, are running for office in the hopes of reshaping the establishment's outlook on electability.

One of those candidates is Jennifer Carroll Foy of Petersburg, one of the poorest cities in Virginia, who is competing in a crowded primary for governor against a longtime fixture in Democratic politics, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, who boasts name recognition, national support and fundraising prowess after leaving office in 2018, is seen as a favorite in June's Democratic primary in the off-year election. Virginia state law doesn't allow for sitting governors to seek back-to-back terms.

But his success is far from assured: Back in his first gubernatorial election in 2013, he broke a nearly 40-year long streak in the commonwealth as the first candidate since the 1970s to keep the governor's mansion in the hands of the president's party, but he only narrowly edged out his Republican opponent, then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

With his entry, McAuliffe, who is white, sets up a complicated intra-party clash. Not long after an embarrassing blackface scandal nearly toppled Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, and particularly after Vice President Kamala Harris made history with her election to the nation's second-highest office, some in the state argue that at a time of a racial renaissance across the country, Democrats should be getting behind new, potentially historic, voices.

"Representation matters," Carroll Foy said. "And it's hard for little girls to be what they cannot see."

If elected this November, Carroll Foy, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who stepped down last year to focus full-time on her campaign, would be the first Black female governor in the nation's history. She's also hoping to bring ideological diversity to the ticket, running to McAuliffe's left and earning the endorsements of a slate of progressive groups, including Democracy for America and the Sunrise Movement Virginia.

"We are working hard to ensure that we will build a Virginia where its future is better than its past," she said, a nod to the state's racial scars. "I intimately understand the challenges that Virginia families face because I live them … (I'm) a product of a community that has been ignored, neglected and left behind."

McAuliffe, for his part, is positioning himself as an experienced steward who can navigate the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis with "big, bold leadership."

"We cannot tinker around the edges, and we need to come in with big ideas and seasoned leadership to take Virginia really to the next level," he said in an interview. "It is time to go big."

McAuliffe's supporters, too, believe that his "tested leadership" is an easy sell, and both point to his "broad, diverse coalition," which includes prominent Black state and local leaders, to allay concerns about a lack of diversity with him at the top of the ticket.

"They feel like they felt about Joe Biden and that is that we need somebody who can hit the ground running in these tough, tough times," said L. Louise Lucas, the first Black woman to serve as president pro tempore in the Virginia Senate and a co-chair of McAuliffe's campaign. "We need somebody who has experience ... and (does) not have to learn on the job."

But it's not just Carroll Foy's potentially historic candidacy that McAuliffe could be defeating. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan could also be the first Black female governor in the country if she's successful. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia, faced a controversy over sexual assault allegations which he denied, and Lee Carter, who is white and the only democratic socialist in the House of Delegates, are also seeking the party's nomination.

In nearby North Carolina, Smith's chief opponent in the 2022 race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr is Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson, who is white and represents a Charlotte-area district.

Jackson has spent the early days of his campaign learning "as much as" he can from residents across the state, but with a background that closely resembles his predecessor's, his pursuit of the nomination provokes questions about how he can win where Cunningham lost -- and how another white man can better reflect the diversity of the electorate he hopes to serve.

"I want to forcefully use principles like honesty and decency to try and broaden the coalition that wants to pull people onto the right side of history," he said. No one "who looks at my record," he continued, "can call me a quiet ally."

Asked how he plans to demonstrate his allegiance to being an advocate for voters, he said his campaign would not be "just a gigantic marketing effort" but "actual preparation for the job."

"You would go to every county in a real way, and you would learn what their priorities were and then you would incorporate those into an agenda," he said, outlining the basis for his 100-county campaign.

Smith and Jackson are the only two declared candidates in the contest so far, as the shape of the Democratic field is still not entirely clear. Attorney General Josh Stein, who won re-election last year; Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court; Anthony Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte who served as former President Barack Obama's transportation secretary; and Vi Lyles, the current Charlotte mayor, are among those speculated to be weighing possible bids.

As the issue of diversity looms over these races, candidates are not the only ones arguing that the old approach will no longer work, particularly in the South. The success in Georgia, the culmination of a decade of grassroots organizing and outreach, solidified the state's purple hue and provided undeniable evidence of the utility of more diverse candidates, strategists and experts say.

"The strategy of chasing a traditional, white Democrat in the South is not viable," argued Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Emory University.

Investing in candidates who bring different demographics and backgrounds to the fold across the region and in other competitive swing states, strategists and experts said, can not only protect Democratic majorities in Congress but also redefine the look of a standard-bearer within the party.

"If white men can represent a diverse electorate, certainly I think we are in a phase in our country where Black women and candidates of color -- that a diverse pool of voters can see themselves in that candidate," said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a political action committee dedicated to electing Black women. "These are actually the candidates that we should be looking at as roadmaps."

Across an increasingly expanding battlefield in 2022, Republicans only need a net gain of one seat to reclaim control of the Senate. Democrats are eyeing several possible pick-up opportunities to defend their slim majority, including in Ohio after Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a longtime establishment figure in the GOP, abruptly announced he wouldn't seek re-election.

The once-bellwether swing state has tilted towards Republicans in recent cycles, giving the GOP an advantage in next year's contest. Former President Donald Trump won the state twice by the same margin of eight points, but an open seat makes the environment slightly more friendly for Democrats.

Congressman Tim Ryan, a formidable Democrat who represents a working-class region in northeastern Ohio, appears to be moving toward announcing a bid for the seat in the coming weeks, according to both his public comments and a source familiar with his intentions.

"We'll have more to say in the coming weeks," he told MSNBC last week of a potential announcement.

The seasoned lawmaker, who has served in the House for nearly two decades and mounted a short-lived presidential bid in 2019, said in a statement provided to ABC News that the Senate "needs another working-class voice."

Lee Saunders, a national labor leader and president of AFSCME, is openly encouraging Ryan to run, telling ABC News, "I think that he would be a very, very strong candidate."

"His reputation is supporting working families and the issues that confront their communities," he continued. "He not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk."

In a race without an incumbent, though, it is unlikely Ryan will be the only prospect on the Democratic roster. Among the other potential contenders mulling a run are two women: Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Dr. Amy Acton, the former director of Ohio's Department of Health, who was charged with leading the state's coronavirus response.

Some Democrats are publicly advocating for a multiracial, ideologically robust primary to give voters a choice between candidates who look like the state and can best galvanize the party's base.

"I want to see some Black people in that race," said Nina Turner, the sharp-elbowed progressive stalwart who is seen as an early favorite to replace outgoing Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge. "I want to see some Hispanic brothers and sisters in that race. We benefit from that."

Turner said she "wouldn't be" disappointed if Ryan became the nominee and vowed to be part of the effort to end the Democratic drought in the state -- save for the successes of Obama and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. But she added, "This country has a long way to go."

The push among diverse candidates to test the durability of the Democratic Party's antiquated approach is not new. For years, Dowe said, Black women have been part of the political landscape, running and finding success largely at the state and local level.

But there is renewed urgency this time, she said, particularly after the most recent cycles, including the historic 2018 midterm elections and the Georgia Senate runoffs.

"There is an attention paid to the fact that these women and diverse candidates can win," she said.