National News

Barriers Fall in Georgia Gubernatorial Primary

Posted May 22, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2018 10:55 p.m. EDT

Georgia Democrats selected the first black woman to be a major party nominee for governor in the United States on Tuesday, choosing Stacey Abrams, a liberal former state House leader, who will test just how much the state’s traditionally conservative politics are shifting.

By defeating Stacey Evans, also a former state legislator, Abrams also became Georgia’s first black nominee for governor, a prize that has eluded earlier generations of African-American candidates in the state. The general election is sure to draw intense national attention as Georgia voters determine whether a black woman can win in the Deep South, a region that has not had an African-American governor since Reconstruction.

She will face either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the top Republican vote-getter Tuesday, or Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Cagle and Kemp will vie for their party’s nomination in a July runoff.

Abrams’ victory, confirmed by The Associated Press, came on the latest 2018 primary night to see Democratic women finding success, as voters in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas also went to the polls. Among the winners was Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, who upset Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in a House primary in Kentucky.

But it was the breakthrough of Abrams that drew the most notice. A 44-year-old Yale Law School graduate who has mixed a municipal career in Atlanta and statehouse politics with running a small business and writing a series of romance novels under a nom de plume, she is now a central character in the midterm elections and the Democratic Party’s quest to define itself.

In a Facebook post declaring victory Tuesday night, Abrams acknowledged the road to November would be “long and tough.”

“Tonight, communities that are so often overlooked — whose values are never voiced — stood with us to say: Ours is the Georgia of tomorrow,” she wrote. “A state where diversity is a strength. A state where progress is more than possible.”

As supporters waited for her to arrive at a downtown Atlanta hotel to speak, one man wore a sandwich board adorned with an American flag that read, “Trust black women. Elect black women.”

Abrams spoke forcefully to the crowd, calling herself a “proud daughter of the Deep South,” and referring to Georgia’s rich but “complicated” history — and of leaders who too often had overlooked the “gap between struggle and success.”

“Across Georgia, we are ready for more,” she said, later pointedly called out Republicans, who she said had been “too mean and too cheap to expand Medicaid.”

She also quoted the Book of Esther, saying “We were born for such a time as this.”

With Atlanta thriving as a capital of black America and a magnet for immigrants across the world, Georgia’s demographics are changing. Yet even as Democrats eye the state as the next great blue hope, the party has struggled to win statewide office in part because it has had little success with conservative-leaning whites. African-American Democrats have held powerful state offices, like the attorney general’s post, but Republicans currently control every major position in Georgia.

Abrams has signaled that she is unlikely to spend much time pleading with rural whites to return to a Democratic Party that they have largely abandoned. She has embarked instead on a strategy of energizing a coalition of young and nonwhite Georgians who represent a growing share of the state’s population, an approach national Democrats are watching closely as they grapple with how to reclaim the presidency.

But this slice of the electorate has not proven to be reliable in nonpresidential races and some of them are not registered to vote at all. By contrast, non-Hispanic white voters make up about 53 percent of Georgia’s population, according to census data, and they tend to vote in strong numbers.

And Abrams’ race and gender may make her bid difficult enough: Georgia has never elected a female governor and, while Atlanta has elected a procession of African-American mayors, they have not found success in running for statewide office. Many Democrats believe that waging a progressive campaign aimed at mobilizing liberals, rather than running toward the center to win over suburban moderates, is folly in a state that has not elected a Democrat governor since 1998.

“It’s still a red state, even though it’s getting more purple every year,” said Kerwin Swint, chairman of the political science department at Kennesaw State University.

Abrams’ views, he said, “are much more reflective of the progressives in the national Democratic Party, like a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren.”

Yet Abrams’ candidacy comes at a volatile moment in Georgia, where demographic changes are creating fresh uncertainty about Republicans’ dominance, and when left-leaning voters are highly energized.

President Donald Trump carried Georgia by just 5 percentage points in 2016, a narrower margin than he enjoyed in traditional battleground states like Ohio and Iowa. And booming communities of black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters in the Atlanta area have put Georgia on track to become a majority-minority state inside of a decade.

Abrams is likely to benefit in the fall from strong connections to national Democrats who helped her storm through the primary. The groundbreaking nature of her candidacy may also ensure that both the party and African-American political groups spend amply on her behalf, even if Georgia’s cultural conservatism and racially polarized politics make the campaign a difficult slog.

Her candidacy will also be a test of whether the extraordinary energy coursing through Democratic politics at the federal level will also flow into state elections. In a special election for Congress in Georgia last year, grass-roots donors helped a political newcomer, Jon Ossoff, raise nearly $30 million in a losing campaign. But there is little precedent for Democrats pouring small dollars into a state election on that scale, and it is unclear whether Abrams can expect a similar outpouring of support.

Recognizing that opportunity, and facing growing calls for candidate diversity in a party that depends heavily on black voters, several national groups aligned with Democrats have made Abrams’ campaign a top priority. And African-American activists say they will be watching them to ensure they keep their commitment.

“We need to hold our institutions accountable to investing in black women’s leadership,” said Glynda Carr, who helped found Higher Heights, a group that promotes African-American women in politics. Organizations like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood, which have special clout among women, backed her in the primary even though her opponent was also female.

Several potential presidential candidates have already campaigned with Abrams and are all but certain to return to her side in the general election. Advisers to Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, the Senate’s two black Democrats, both of whom are considering the 2020 race, said Abrams’ campaign was a high priority for the fall.

Only two African-Americans have been elected governor by voters: L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia in 1989 and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts in 2006 and again in 2010.

What may prove decisive this fall is whether Abrams — in addition to drawing out voters who typically do not vote in a midterm election — can also win over the sort of white women who have recoiled from Trump and powered Democratic turnout in a series of special elections and primaries.

To do so, she will have to make inroads that have eluded other Democrats. In Georgia, about 7 in 10 white women voted for both Trump in 2016 and Gov. Nathan Deal, the term-limited incumbent, in 2014, exit polls found. In Georgia’s last election for governor, African-Americans made up about 30 percent of the electorate, and 9 in 10 gave their votes to Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee and a grandson of the former President Jimmy Carter.

But nearly two-thirds of voters in 2014 were white, according to exit polls. Carter lost his race by 8 percentage points — and a little more than 200,000 votes — to Deal. Abrams will have to drive minority turnout far higher, without losing ground among whites, to avoid Carter’s fate.

In other primary races Tuesday, Kentucky’s McGrath displayed another show of force by a Democratic woman in a contested primary. She seized the party’s nomination for a Republican-leaning House seat based in Lexington, defeating Gray, the city’s popular mayor.

National Democrats had aggressively recruited Gray to challenge the incumbent there, Rep. Andy Barr, viewing Gray’s stature as a local official and former Senate candidate as assets in the race. But McGrath had a different and plainly more powerful appeal as a political newcomer, and she entered the race with a splashy online video that dramatized her military career and electrified Democratic activists in Kentucky and beyond.

Republicans hold an advantage overall in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, but party strategists have acknowledged in recent weeks that McGrath’s candidacy had gained momentum rapidly enough to unnerve Barr’s camp.