The contest for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination is between two women named Stacey, both progressive lawyers who grew up in poverty, and it looks like a political science experiment about the future of the Democratic Party.
It’s not just that Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, is black, and Stacey Evans, a former state representative from suburban Atlanta, is white. More significant are their divergent strategies for victory, which show, in microcosm, the debate Democrats are having about how to rebuild the party in the age of Trump. Do they try to win back white voters who’ve abandoned them? Or do they assume that most of those voters are gone for good, and invest in turning out minorities and white liberals?
Evans, who has been endorsed by Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor, is running an education-focused campaign meant to lure white swing voters. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, it’s an approach that “failed her party the past four elections, but it helped a generation of Georgia Democrats win office before them.” Abrams, by contrast, thinks she can prevail with a coalition of mobilized minority voters and white progressives. It’s a new, largely untried strategy for a Southern politician running statewide, but after Jones’ miraculous victory in Alabama, it suddenly looks possible.
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We’ve all heard a lot about how the calamity of Donald Trump’s election has led women of all races to pour into politics. But it’s not just women; there’s a new political intensity among people of color more broadly. African-Americans in particular are once again shouldering the burden of redeeming America from its worst impulses. High black voter turnout last month in Virginia – where the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, ran a campaign full of Confederate nostalgia – was crucial to the Democratic wave in that state.
And in Alabama on Tuesday, black voters defied all predictions, as well as attempts at voter suppression, to turn out at historic levels. Though African-Americans are only 26 percent of the population, exit polls showed that they might have made up as much as 30 percent of voters. These voters went for Jones overwhelmingly; he won 98 percent of black women. “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” tweeted the Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez.
Adrianne Shropshire is the executive director of BlackPAC, a national organization founded last year that helped lead the far-reaching effort to mobilize African-American voters in Alabama and Virginia. “Black people in general, and black women specifically, are desperately trying to drive us out of a ditch,” she told me after Jones’ victory. “And the reason why is because we know there is nothing good for us in that ditch. We are clear about where we cannot go as a country.”
And it’s not just voters; there’s anecdotal evidence that people of color are seeking local office in large numbers. Arisha Hatch, director of the Color of Change PAC, told me there’s a “wave of black women candidates, specifically at the mayoral level, some at the district attorney level.” Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which helps progressive millennials seeking political office, says half her group’s endorsed candidates are people of color. In addition to Georgia, there are progressive black gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Maryland.
It’s hard to say how viable most of these candidates are. America has a shockingly bad record of electing black people to statewide office, and black turnout alone isn’t enough to change that. (There have only been four black state governors, including one who served in Louisiana for 35 days during Reconstruction.) Depending on how you look at it, Jones’ victory can bolster either Evans’ or Abrams’ case. As Greg Bluestein wrote in The Journal-Constitution, for Evans, “who is hoping to reclaim white moderates who once regularly voted for Democrats, the defection of suburban voters to Jones’ camp was an encouraging sign.”
Yet the truth is that while white turnout was mostly weak, Roy Moore did pretty well with the white people who showed up to vote. Despite credible allegations that he sexually assaulted teenagers, Moore won 68 percent of white voters overall and 77 percent of whites without a college degree. It was black turnout – the key to Abrams’ strategy – that saved the day.
As Abrams points out, you need to get a lot more white voters to win statewide office in Alabama than you do in Georgia. The non-Hispanic white population in Alabama is around 66 percent; in Georgia, it’s less than 54 percent. The challenge for Democrats is getting voters of color to turn out at the same rate as white people, particularly in nonpresidential years. Alabama shows that, with enough resources and organizing, it can be done.
And if it can be done, it means that Democrats don’t need to woo culturally conservative white people in order to resurrect the party in the South. “What I am arguing is that we actually embrace the new reality of what the South looks like,” Abrams told me.
Jones proved that it’s possible to win in the South – in Alabama! – without moving right on social issues by leaning hard into the Obama coalition of people of color, educated white liberals and young people. “The next proof point is to show that this is something that can be exported and doesn’t require a pedophile as your foil,” says Abrams. Whoever wins the nomination probably won’t have the luxury of running against someone like Moore. The only foil she can count on is the racist groper in the White House.