Rep. Donald McEachin was on his way to the basement of his House office building for his 3:30 p.m. haircut Wednesday when the call came in. The Virginia Democrat ducked into a phone booth for privacy.
Joe Biden was on the phone.
“It was a very good conversation, a fun conversation,’’ McEachin told USA Today. “I didn’t need more convincing.’’
Black lawmakers are fielding calls in their offices, calls back in their districts and, yes, even on the way to get a haircut, from 2020 presidential candidates looking to court the influential members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
With a field of 21 Democratic candidates caucus members are hearing, not just from Biden, but other presidential hopefuls, including two members: Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. The efforts have only intensified as candidates try to stand out in a crowded field and shore up support from African American voters.
Biden, the former vice president who formally launched his 2020 campaign last week, has racked up endorsements from the three CBC members including McEachin, who announced his support in an interview with USA Today. Two others candidates, Harris and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, each have backing from at least one member of the caucus.
For Biden, support from CBC members could help him to build on strength he has shown in the polls with African American voters.
A Quinnipiac University poll from March, before Biden had officially joined the race, showed 44 percent of black voters supported the former vice president, a commanding lead over the next closest candidate. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was next with 17%, and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke came in with 16%. Harris had 8%, Castro had 3% and Booker had 1%.
McEachin praised Biden for launching his campaign with a video expressing outrage over President Donald Trump’s suggestion that there were fine people on “both sides” of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. that left a counter-protester dead.
McEachin, however, said Biden still has plenty more to do.
“He needs to be out there with people… meeting folks, reminding them who he is and whose he is,” said McEachin. “If he does, that, which I know he will do, I’m absolutely confident he will be the next president.”
Powerful voting bloc
Black caucus members represent 82 million constituents in districts across the country, including many in key battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Georgia. When the group mobilizes, it can significantly boost turnout for a candidate.
With its 55 Democratic members – a record – the caucus is one of the largest in the Democratic-controlled House. Although the CBC will not make an endorsement as a group, the competition for the support of individual members is still wide open.
“As the African American community goes, so goes the Democratic Party,” said New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic Caucus Chair and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“If black voters do show up in a bloc it’s going to make a big difference,’’ said Keneshia Grant, a political scientist at Howard University. “I can imagine a scenario where members of the CBC are traveling together in groups around the South for example, ahead of South Carolina, or Super Tuesday and people being compelled by their presence and their endorsement.”
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones knows how much that can help. Ahead of his own special election in 2017, Jones lobbied caucus members for their support. Members, including Booker, campaigned for him across Alabama, and Jones has credited African American voters, particularly black women, for helping him win.
California Rep. Karen Bass, who took over as caucus chairwoman earlier this year, said she’s already heard from about half of the candidates.
“They know they need to do that,” she said. “I’m not saying that in a negative way, I’m saying that they’re coming out of respect …They say ‘I’m running. This is what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.'”
A fight, not a coronation
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana had been urging Biden to run since shortly after Trump was elected. He announced his endorsement of the former vice president last week, along with Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Biden’s home state of Delaware.
But Richmond said the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is “going to be a real fight,” not a coronation.
“If I were running for president I would be courting all 55 members, absolutely,’’ said Richmond, a former CBC chairman.
Biden was the senator from Delaware for nearly four decades before becoming vice president in 2008, and Blunt Rochester has known him for 30 years.
When she met with him at his home in Delaware recently, she said he didn’t assume she would endorse. Their conversation was scheduled for 15 minutes, but turned into two hours, and at one point, she said, Biden stopped to take a call from a family member.
“That really, again, kind of stood out as one of the things he does, a priority for him, his family,’’ she said.
Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, stepped out early in support of Harris and is helping lead Harris’ California effort. Lee has also campaigned for the senator in South Carolina, visiting churches, historically black college and universities, and local Democratic clubs.
Lee said it makes a difference to have candidates and surrogates engaged with African American voters.
“Every candidate should do that,’’ she said, adding that African Americans and black women have been the most consistent among Democratic voters. “Candidates have to recognize that as they put together their coalitions.”
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the majority whip and the highest ranking African American in Congress, is sticking with his long-standing policy of not endorsing a candidate. He wants them allto first make their case to voters in South Carolina, one of the early primary states and the first with a significantly diverse electorate. The first two contests are in Iowa and New Hampshire, where white voters are the vast majority.
“I’m sort of taking myself out of the game. I’m not to be flirted with,” said Clyburn, who is considered a kingmaker in South Carolina. “I’m just not available right now. I could be later.’’
But Clyburn said Booker, Biden and Harris have been effectively campaigning in South Carolina. Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend Indiana both campaigned in the state over the weekend.
“I told people way back that if Biden got into the race he would be the immediate front runner and everybody would be fighting for second place,” he said. He said polls showing Biden’s strength with African American voters “seem to indicate that I knew what I was talking about.”
Who can beat Trump?
Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty had also been pushing Biden to run for years. She has a photograph with him on her wall “bigger than any family portrait that I have.” But she’s not ready to endorse yet. There are too many other candidates she also has a relationship with.
Five candidates have reached out to her. She said the field makes her “proud,” but right now “Biden stands out.”
“He was the only candidate that said to me ‘I don’t want your endorsement or money right now. I want to tap you to get a pulse,’ ” she said.
Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., said it’s too early to endorse. But he sees Biden as “well-positioned” to beat Trump, though he is not the only one.
“Electability is huge for us,” said Brown. He hasn’t heard from Biden, but Booker and Buttigieg’s team have reached out.
Grant said many caucus members may line up behind Biden because he’s the established candidate and has a long history with black lawmakers and black communities. And he served eight years as vice president under President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
But she cautioned, “I don’t think that’s going to be good for them in the long run.’
Grant pointed to 2008 when many caucus members backed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton versus then-Sen. Obama during the Democratic primary, citing her close relationship with them and black voters.
They said, “basically, I’m friendly with Clinton and for that reason I have to be honorable to our friendship instead of recognizing the moment that we were in with Barack Obama and taking that leap with him in the primaries,’’ Grant said.
Obama has not endorsed a candidate, but has often said choosing Biden as his VP was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I hold (Obama) in high esteem and I miss him so badly. But he’s been gone for over two years and I’m a big boy and I have to make up my own mind,” Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson said.
‘I can’t tell you how awkward it is’
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. said the 2020 race gives African American voters a plethora of choices and that’s a good thing, but he added that there is some awkwardness for CBC lawmakers given the fact that several of the candidates also serve in Congress.
“I can’t tell you how awkward it is,” Cleaver said.
Last weekend, Cleaver was dining with his 95-year-old father at a Chinese buffet in Wichita Falls, Texas, talking about the good problem of having so many strong options in the Democratic primary. He said his father thought it was “the most amazing thing.”
“We have some African Americans running and we have some non African Americans who would, in all likelihood, govern pretty much the same way,’ ” Cleaver said he told his father.
“And (my dad) shakes his head like ‘I never thought I would live to see it.’”
While a handful of candidates have been more aggressive in their courtship, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said candidates haven’t done enough, considering the influence of the caucus.
“They may be taking us for granted,” he said. “The ones who are smart will come sooner. Others will come late, but they will come too late.’’
Rep. Frederica Wilson said she will announce her choice next month before the Democratic debate in Miami. By Tuesday, four candidates had called.
“It should have been 20 … so 16 have fallen short,’’ the Florida Democrat said with a laugh.
That’s just fine for Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who said he has only heard from Harris and Booker.
“I do not want to be bothered at this stage of the game,’’ he said. “It’s too early.’’