Deval Patrick looks like the ideal candidate to break Joe Biden’s grip on African-American voters.
He‘s just the second elected black governor since Reconstruction and has close ties with former President Barack Obama.
But even as the former Massachusetts governor’s entry into the race is embraced by many black lawmakers and strategists, they question whether his record, relative lack of name ID and late start in a crowded field will impede his ability to make a mark.
“He’s not a national name. Folks in Louisiana aren’t going to be like, ‘oh wow. Deval Patrick joined the race.’ And even at the activist level, there’s no sense that this is someone we can rally behind,” said Cliff Albright, an activist with the group Black Voters Matter, which is active throughout the South.
Albright noted that two other black candidates — California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen Cory Booker — have been running for months and are polling in the single digits. And it’s unclear how Patrick, who works for Boston private equity firm Bain Capital, will play in the South, home to a majority of the Democratic primary’s black voters.
Those familiar with his plans say Patrick hopes to generate momentum out of New Hampshire — which is reached by the Boston media market — and South Carolina, where more than half of primary voters are expected to be African-American.
“Deval Patrick is not wildly progressive. He’s safe to the money people. He’s Cory Booker minus ‘I live in the projects,’” Albright said. “He’s going to come in and do something that Cory Booker can’t do? I don’t get it.”
Prior to holding political office, Patrick served in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division under President Bill Clinton, a pedigree that his boosters say gives him a track record on the federal level that’s appealing to black voters, who largely support Biden for his experience as vice president in the Obama White House.
Supporters describe Patrick as deeply religious, say he knows biblical scripture well and is at home in church, all of which would be an asset when campaigning in Southern black communities.
If the Harris and Booker campaigns continue to stall, some can envision Patrick emerging as an electable alternative to Biden.
“[Patrick is] imminently qualified, almost as qualified as anyone in the race,” said Johnnie Cordero, co-chair of the South Carolina Democratic Black Caucus. “I don’t think it’s too late. If he’s going to enter, I think it’s wise for him to wait because some of the other folks aren’t doing as well in the polls as they’d like to be.”
Nevertheless, Patrick faces the daunting challenges. He has already missed the filing deadlines to get on the primary ballot in two Southern states that will vote on Super Tuesday — Arkansas and Alabama, where more than half the primary electorate in 2016 was African-American.
It will take tens of millions of dollars to build his name ID and the timing of his entry into the race is also a problem — there are just 81 days until the Iowa caucuses.
Another hurdle: a majority of Democrats have expressed satisfaction with the candidate pool as it currently stands.
“I think we always have to question…people who are running: do you have time to prepare? Do you have time to raise the money? Do you have time? Is time on your side?” said Minyon Moore, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton adviser.
African-American political insiders in Massachusetts have privately expressed concerns that Patrick didn’t endorse Rep. Ayanna Pressley in her 2018 campaign to become the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Instead, Patrick backed the white incumbent she defeated in the primary, Mike Capuano.
Pressley has endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the presidential race. Her campaign and strategists declined to comment on the record about Patrick.
Massachusetts state Rep. Russel Holmes, an African-American Democrat, said Patrick could be a force in the primary race if he is able to put together a fundraising operation. He said Patrick’s dynamic speaking style would give the race a jolt.
“I was here when he was elected and still feel there’s no orator, no presenter, no speaker I’ve heard, ever, who can motivate a crowd or get a message across pretty succinctly more than Deval. So I think not only in South Carolina, I think he’ll do well, even in New Hampshire and Iowa and other places,” Holmes said. “But the big question is going to be still — this comes from me, from my perspective — when it comes down to money. How do you get it done now that he’s joining a race, you know, 10 months afterwards?”
Throughout his governorship Patrick maintained strong approval numbers in Massachusetts. His candidacy would cause a number of influential Massachusetts politicians to make a tough decision between two high-profile home-state politicians — Warren, a progressive frontrunner, and Patrick, a moderate two-term governor.
While Patrick’s name recognition in New England could make him competitive in New Hampshire with the region’s two current favorites, Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in South Carolina Patrick would need to crack the firewall of black support that Biden is counting on to propel him to the nomination.
“I don’t dislike Biden. Biden isn’t doing what needs to be done,” Cordero said. “Biden’s campaign seems to be based on his belief that he is going to carry the black vote by name recognition and association with Obama. The people he’s strongest with are older African-Americans and diehard Democrats, but he won’t carry the nomination with them alone.”
Biden and Patrick would both have appeal to many black voters due to their Obama connections. But Biden’s role as architect of the 1994 Crime Bill could present a problem when juxtaposed against Patrick’s civil rights and criminal justice work during the same era, especially among younger black voters who are unenthusiastic about Biden and have yet to rally behind a single candidate.
Still, Patrick would face a reasonable amount of scrutiny from those voters, especially those aligned with the activist community.
“People like him. But I also think that people are misjudging this electorate in some ways,” said Adriane Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, an organization that supports candidates who champion social justice issues.
“Gov. Patrick would have a lot of ground to make up with voters including black voters,” she said. “I suppose there’s a path in the early states through New Hampshire and South Carolina but he will have to reckon with challenging issues surrounding his record — housing and foreclosure issues, as an example — that black voters will use to evaluate him and he will have to up his profile with those voters with lightning speed.”
One advantage for Patrick is that Harris and Booker remain enigmas, according to several black strategists, who say they’ve been confounded by the two senators’ performances to date. But they view Biden as the candidate more imperiled by Patrick’s entry.
“[Harris and Patrick] both have these looming obstacles over them but I think this is more of an indictment on Joe Biden than any other candidates in the race,” said Bakari Sellers, a South Carolina-based political strategist and Harris surrogate. “The South Carolina firewall is a lot less certain for him than it was for Clinton in 2016 and with Deval in the race it’s even more uncertain.”
The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Patrick is welcome in the race because of the voice he brings for Democrats generally and African-Americans specifically, said Quentin James, the executive director of The Collective, a super PAC that supports black candidates.
But, James said, much will depend on the resources he’ll have behind his candidacy.
“He’d have to have a MAJOR Super PAC $$ behind him at this late stage,” James said in a text message to POLITICO.
Stephanie Murray contributed to this report.