Former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume is heading back to the House after a special election in Maryland on Tuesday made him both the successor and immediate predecessor of former House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, who died in October.
Voters in Ohio on Tuesday also chose House nominees in primaries that were rescheduled at the last minute in mid-March. Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty easily beat back a challenge in the Columbus-based 3rd District from an opponent backed by the liberal Justice Democrats, while health care advocate Kate Schroder won the Democratic nomination in the Cincinnati-area 1st District to take on Republican Rep. Steve Chabot.
The elections were the first major test of a rapid shift to voting almost entirely by mail since the coronavirus pandemic forced states across the country to postpone or cancel in-person voting to control the spread of infections.
Official results in Maryland will not be released until May 8 to allow time for all ballots mailed by Tuesday’s deadline to be delivered and counted.
In the Baltimore-area 7th District, Mfume was leading Republican Kimber Klacik, 73 percent to 27 percent, with 40 percent of precincts reporting, when The Associated Press called the race.
Mfume delivered his victory speech via Facebook Live from a podium in a darkened and echoey campaign office before a limited number of reporters who agreed to wear face masks and observe social distancing. His wife and son stood behind him, but he noted that members of his campaign staff had stayed home.
“What ordinarily would have been a great, and I’d like to think, grand celebration this evening is tempered, properly so, by the fact that many of our citizens at this hour are struggling to fight off the terrible disease of the coronavirus,” he said.
Baltimore County Board of Elections President Bruce Robinson said in-person activity at the polls Tuesday was “minimal, maybe less.” By 5 p.m., 10 hours after polls opened, just 242 people had voted in person in Baltimore County, 312 in Baltimore City and 156 in Howard County.
Mfume told CQ Roll Call that he mailed in his ballot two weeks ago. Instead of going to vote in person with his wife first thing in the morning as he would on a typical Election Day, he spent much of Tuesday at home, staying in contact with volunteers at each of the three open polling places in the district.
“The hardest part has been the fact that for the last 45 days, we have not been able to have physical contact with voters,” Mfume said. He added that the biggest issue for him was finding a way to respond to the people affected by the virus or the economic collapse that has accompanied the shutdown.
“I can tell you right now, the pandemic has made it clear to me that is the first thing I would like to focus on, and that is where a great deal of my efforts will go,” he said.
Mfume spent time after leading the NAACP focusing on racial disparities in health care policy, including as the executive director of the National Medical Association, which represents African American physicians
“The COVID crisis has revealed that there are disparate impacts of this disease on black and brown communities,” he said. “For me it’s important to make sure that we look at that and talk about that.”
Mfume developed a reputation as a tactful lawmaker interested in building coalitions during his first decade in Congress. He was the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Joint Economic Committee. He also led Democrats on the Oversight and Investigations panel of the Banking and Financial Services Committee.
He said many of his priorities would remain the same as when he left in 1996 to take the post at the NAACP, and he would continue to focus on the economy, jobs and oversight.
He campaigned on his congressional legacy and on his tenure at the NAACP, where he took credit for rebuilding an organization that was mired in $4 million in debt and facing lost membership and branch closures. He denied allegations that complaints of sexual harassment had led the executive committee to take a secret vote in 2004 not to renew his contract, an episode unearthed by the Baltimore Sun during his campaign.
Asked to comment on those allegations, Mfume referred to the Baltimore Sun’s endorsement of his campaign last week.
“I think the Sun said it all in that endorsement for my campaign,” he said.
Mfume’s campaign is not over, however. He will be on the ballot again on June 2, when the state will hold its regular primary — also mostly by mail — for the two-year term that starts in 2021. Klacik will also be seeking the Republican nomination on that ballot, and several Democrats who lost to Mfume in the February special election primary are running again, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and state Sen. Jill Carter.
Ohio’s delayed primaries
Ohio had originally planned for a March 17 primary, but ultimately extended the election until Tuesday, changing what had traditionally been an in-person process into one conducted nearly entirely by mail. There were a few exceptions allowing voters to drop off ballots at county boards of elections, and ballots cast at early-voting sites before the March 17 election was delayed remained valid.
Beatty, who is seeking a fifth term, defeated Morgan Harper, a former senior adviser at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 68 percent to 32 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting. It was the first primary Beatty had faced since she won her party’s nomination in 2012.
She raised and spent about $2.2 million as of April 8, about three times the effort by Harper, who raised about $772,000 and spent $703,000.
Harper received an early boost when she was endorsed by Justice Democrats, the progressive organization that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win an upset primary in New York two years ago against Rep. Joseph Crowley, who at the time was the Democrats’ No. 4 House leader.
Harper was one of eight Democratic House challengers the group has endorsed this cycle. So far, one of them, Marie Newman of Illinois, has prevailed, defeating Rep. Daniel Lipinski in a March primary.
In southwest Ohio’s 1st District, where Chabot is considered one of the few potentially vulnerable GOP incumbents, Kate Schroder handily defeated Nikki Foster for the Democratic nomination with 68 percent of the vote.
Schroder, a health care advocate and cancer survivor, raised $822,000, and Foster, an Air Force veteran and the daughter of immigrants, raised $525,000.
Chabot defeated the heavily funded Democrat Aftab Pureval in 2018 with 51 percent of the vote, but has been considered vulnerable because he’s traditionally been an underwhelming fundraiser and because the district includes much of the Cincinnati area. He was unopposed in the primary and as of April 8, had $862,000 in his campaign fund after raising $1.8 million.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 1st District race Lean Republican. The Beatty and Mfume races are rated Solid Democratic.
Eleanor Van Buren contributed to this report.