(Reuters) - Quintez Brown took to the streets in Kentucky to join many Americans in protesting against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody last month.
The 19-year-old student at the University of Louisville, who is Black, also texted voters in support of Charles Booker, a Black Democratic state lawmaker running for the U.S. Senate.
“The protests showed the importance of having someone in a political office who can actually advocate for us and make a change,” Brown said, adding it was his first time working on a political campaign.
The uprising after Floyd’s death under the knee of a white police officer on May 25 has helped fuel a groundswell of political energy, spurring new voter registrations, record turnout in Georgia and Kentucky primaries and a string of victories for a younger generation of candidates of color in Tuesday’s elections.
Democrats hope the enthusiasm can be sustained until the Nov. 3 general election, when former Vice President Joe Biden will challenge Republican President Donald Trump in a race that could hinge on the turnout of voters of color and young people.
Biden, whose foundering campaign was rescued by mostly older Black voters in South Carolina’s primary in February, wants their strong support against Trump. It will be crucial in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, particularly after the first dip in Black voter turnout in 20 years contributed to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016.
Biden also hopes to boost turnout among young voters, who often participate at lower rates than other ages. In 2016, voters between 18 and 29 had a turnout of just 46%, compared to 71% for those 65 years and older, Census figures show. That figure dropped from 2008’s historic election, when younger voters had a 51% turnout.
“There is not a part of the Democratic electorate that is not activated right now. And that energy is going to spill over into the general election,” said Matt Erwin, a Kentucky-based Democratic strategist.
Some groups that work to register voters have seen signs of that energy. Voto Latino, which looks to boost turnout for young Hispanics, said it has registered 94,513 voters so far in June, compared to 10,548 voters in May. About 78% of new registrants were between the ages of 18 and 34, the group said.
Rock the Vote, which works to boost the political power of young people, said it had more than 183,000 new registrations so far in June. Four years ago this month, it had fewer than 35,000.
Jesse Moore, a Rock the Vote board member, said a new generation of voters is asking about their district attorneys and police chiefs.
“People are jaded about the presidency, but the changes they are demanding are almost completely driven by local officials,” Moore said.
Whether that energy will transform into Biden support remains to be seen. He is considering a Black running mate and has backed police reforms, including a ban on chokeholds.
Biden was also criticized during the Democratic primary campaign for his role as a U.S. senator in writing the 1994 crime bill, which critics say led to high incarceration rates that unfairly hit minorities, and some activists have pushed him to offer a broader criminal justice plan in the wake of the protests. [nL1N2DL1HD]
“Up-ballot candidates can benefit from this energy and movement, but only if they align themselves with what the movement has demanded - bold change,” said Victoria Burton-Harris, a Black Democrat who is running for prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, an important battleground state.
Still, Democrats are hopeful that rising political activism from young and minority voters will help Biden. According to a June 10-16 Reuters/Ipsos poll, Biden led Trump by 58 percentage points among African Americans, 23 points among Hispanics, and 20 points among people between 18-34 years of age. Nationally, he had a 13-point lead over Trump, the poll showed.
“I think they are looking for someone who is going to hear them, but also who is going to exhibit the leadership they want at this moment. We would argue that’s Joe Biden,” said Symone Sanders, a senior Biden campaign adviser.
Courtney Parella, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, said Biden was “trying to avoid an examination of his nearly five-decade long political career, a record that undoubtably failed to support minority communities and is now failing to defend our men and women in blue.”
Democrats have been heartened by strong turnout in Georgia’s June 9 elections, where the party broke the primary record set in 2008 despite a host of problems with voting machines, fewer polling places and long lines.
Kentucky’s elections on Tuesday also set a primary turnout record, helped by a competitive race between Booker and well-funded establishment favorite Amy McGrath for the right to challenge Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in November. The race is too close to call with absentee ballots pending.
A wave of other young candidates of color have scored primary victories this year. In New York, Jamaal Bowman, a Black school principal running in his first political campaign, beat 31-year veteran Democratic Representative Eliot Engel on Tuesday. [nL1N2E12YD]
“People finally understand that if we want to change the laws, we have to change the lawmakers,” said Quentin James, founder of the Collective PAC, a group working for the election of progressive Black officials.
Jecorey Arthur, 28, a Black musician and educator running for the Louisville Metro Council, said when he announced his campaign late last year he was told “don’t talk about race so much, people aren’t ready to have that conversation.”
A few months later, once the street protests for racial justice began, he heard a different tune.
“It was like the alarm was going off and you couldn’t press snooze no matter what,” Arthur said. “I went from beating that racial justice drum by myself to being in a marching band.”
Editing by Soyoung Kim and Aurora Ellis