National News

Democrat’s Keep-Left Strategy Tested in Georgia

Posted May 19, 2018 12:29 p.m. EDT

ROME, Ga. — Stacey Abrams hopes to become the first black woman ever elected governor in the United States.

Abrams, a former minority leader of the Georgia House, is also testing a risky campaign strategy: that a Democrat can win a statewide election in the Deep South without relying on the conservative-leaning white voters long considered essential.

“The approach of trying to create a coalition that is centered around converting Republicans has failed Democrats in the state of Georgia for the last 15 years,” Abrams said after mingling with diners in this North Georgia town.

Her rival in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, has scorned Abrams’ strategy as unrealistic and “unhealthy for democracy.”

The dispute between the two well-regarded contenders is not merely the latest Democratic feud over how to break the Republican lock on the South. The stark differences in strategy — and the choice of candidates themselves — reflect the conflict among Democrats over the types of voters and the kinds of politicians that the party should elevate in the Trump era.

Democratic candidates nationwide are wrestling with whether they should try to reclaim some of President Donald Trump’s supporters or try to maximize support from their racially diverse, liberal base. At a time in the country’s politics when issues of race and gender are central, with women at the forefront of an uprising against the president, Abrams’ candidacy looms even larger.

Even some Democrats believe that nominating a single, black, unabashedly liberal woman at this racially charged moment — and in the old Confederacy, no less — is nothing less than political suicide.

But if Abrams, who is expected to prevail Tuesday, goes on to win in November, her victory would demonstrate the intensity of the Trump backlash in a state that is nearly half nonwhite. And the shock waves would be felt far beyond Georgia’s borders.

“It would be earth-shattering,” said Shirley Franklin, who was the first black female mayor of Atlanta. “And it would be a breakthrough for other people, not just for African-Americans, but for Hispanics and Asians.” Abrams’ candidacy is also pressuring national Democrats and liberal interest groups to demonstrate that what is shaping up to be a Year of the Woman is not defined by white women wearing “pussy hats.”

With black women playing a crucial role in the victory of Doug Jones, a Democrat, in the Alabama Senate race, activists are more aggressively pushing the party to recognize them not only as a faithful constituency, but as candidates.

“Yes, #thankblackwomen,” said Adrianne Shropshire, referring to a social media hashtag that emerged after Jones’ victory. “But also #electblackwomen.”

“The progressive ecosystem needs diverse candidates,” said Shropshire, who heads BlackPAC, a group airing commercials and sending mailers in support of Abrams.

A litany of progressive and feminist groups, recognizing the historic nature of Abrams’ candidacy and the need to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion, have heeded the call. On Saturday, national leaders from women’s groups such as Naral Pro-Choice America and Emily’s List planned to join Abrams for a get-out-the-vote rally in Atlanta.

In Georgia, questions about how much time Democrats should spend courting rural and suburban whites have sparked an intense intraparty debate, particularly after the 2014 losses of Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, two moderate Democrats who had run for governor and senator seeking conservative votes.

The two were criticized by fellow Democrats like Kasim Reed, Atlanta’s mayor at the time, who said that the path to victory lay not in courting working-class Southern whites, but in expanding the growing base of likely Democrats to be found among hundreds of thousands of nonwhite people, many of whom were unregistered to vote.

Abrams has endeavored to do this, in part with the New Georgia Project, a group she founded in 2014 to focus on registering what it calls the “New American Majority — people of color, those 18 to 29 years of age, and unmarried women.”

The project says that the group makes up 62 percent of the voting-age population in Georgia, but only 53 percent of registered voters, and Abrams’ supporters believe that they could propel her to victory without the help of a single Trump voter.

But such voters are precisely those who are the least likely to turn out in a midterm election. And declining to look for votes among white swing voters is folly, said Evans, who grew up in the small, majority-white, North Georgia city of Ringgold.

“The truth is, no Democrat or Republican has won the state of Georgia without a significant amount of votes from the other side,” Evans said after an NAACP-sponsored forum in Atlanta.

Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, said Abrams’ strategy could be considered a “moral victory” if she made it to the November election and matched or surpassed the votes Nunn and Carter posted — even if she lost.

“It should silence risk-averse Democrats who fear that putting candidates of color on the ballot actually ends up costing them votes in the long run,” Gillespie said. And it may point to a way forward for Democrats, she said, since nonwhite residents are the “growth market” for Democratic votes, given the state’s long-term demographic shifts.

Abrams, though, was emphatic that she means to notch more than a symbolic victory. “I do not run for office as some sort of quixotic endeavor,” she said.

Black Democrats like Abrams face a kind of double hurdle running statewide: that of perception and that of reality. The first is based on questions of viability, whether racism will impede their chances.

“It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Daniella Gibbs Léger, a senior official at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The challenge can be even more difficult for black women, who make up nearly 59 percent of the black electorate nationwide but constitute just a quarter of the African-Americans in statewide elected office, according to a study conducted by the Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights, which advocates black female candidates. Only seven black women in the country’s history have been elected statewide in their own right.

“The statistics are abominable,” said Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama. Often, the loudest skeptics come from the fatalists in their own party.

“They were well intentioned, but you know, people would say, ‘Oh, I’m ready for you but I don’t know if anybody else is. May not be your time,'” recalled Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the only black woman in the Senate, referring to what was said when she ran for attorney general in 2010.

In the primary, Abrams is facing a woman with her own powerful narrative. Evans, 40, grew up poor and credits her success to Georgia’s lottery-funded Hope Scholarship for college students. She has assailed Abrams for supporting cuts to the popular scholarship in 2011, when the program was facing financial problems.

Abrams, 44, could be vulnerable to other lines of attack in a general election. She lent her campaign $50,000 even while she owed $50,000 in back taxes, and she has called for the removal of the Confederate carvings on the side of Atlanta’s Stone Mountain.

And even as Atlanta booms, luring African-Americans to a capital of black America and immigrants from abroad, Georgia remains a conservative-leaning state where liberal candidates have struggled in recent years to win statewide office.

In Abrams’ favor, though, is the fury toward Trump, particularly from women and minorities, and ambivalence about him from some wealthy suburbanites. And Republicans are being tugged to the right as much as Democrats are drifting to the left.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican, is the front-runner for the governor’s nomination, but his challengers are displaying what the GOP’s Trump-era base demands.

A candidate named Michael Williams has been riding around in what he calls a “deportation bus,” that he has promised to fill with “murderers, rapists, kidnappers” and send back to Mexico. Ads for another candidate, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, have him making a similar vow, though with his own pickup truck. The ads also feature him on a porch jokingly pointing a double-barreled shotgun at one of his daughter’s suitors.

If Republicans cannot pivot toward the political center, they may offer Democrats an opening to win the governorship for the first time in two decades.

And should Abrams win Tuesday, her prospects may then depend on the sort of pride expressed by Rosemary Ringer, an official in Rome who, outside a restaurant, enveloped the candidate in a hug and assurances of victory.

Ringer then told a reporter that Abrams’ candidacy would deal a blow to lingering stereotypes about the inferiority of African-American women.

“It dispels that myth,” she said of a candidate who has a law degree from Yale. “That’s what it says about the South. And we’d dispel that myth with names like Keisha, Ayesha and Stacey.”