The Changing Politics of the South

I have written before about why the 36 governor’s races in 2018 will be crucial. It is also true that the race in Virginia between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie that will take place in less than a month will be a harbinger of things to come. But to be honest, the governor’s race that really has my attention is the one that will take place in Georgia.

On the Republican side, five white men are running in the primary. On the other side of the aisle are two women, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. A recent article in The Root by Abrams-supporter Jason Johnson has stirred up a bit of attention. It is titled, “Black Stacy vs White Stacey: A Lesson in Race Politics From Georgia.” Johnson is not the first person to describe politics in the South like this:

As in much of the South, there are actually three political parties vying for power: black Democrats, white Democrats and Republicans. Thanks to gerrymandering and an exodus of white baby boomers and Generation Xers to the Republican Party since the ’90s, the Georgia Democratic Party base is mostly black.

However, the most tenured officeholders, the big-time donors and most of the political consulting class are white.

Here is how he describes the two candidates:

In a fair world, Stacey Abrams would be the Georgia Democratic Party’s political fantasy. She’s a 43-year-old single black woman, Spelman grad, lawyer and mystery-novel writer and was Democratic minority leader since 2010 before stepping down this year to run for governor…

Many establishment Democrats (meaning white folks) in Georgia don’t think a single black woman can win a statewide election, even though white Democrats haven’t fared much better since 2002. Georgia newspapers are filled with words like “uneasy” and “unsure” regarding Abrams’ “appeal,” which is just code for “We want black votes but we don’t support black candidates.” Many of them have thrown their weight behind Stacey Evans, a white, married 39-year-old state representative and lawyer from Smyrna, Ga.

What garnered the buzz about Johnson’s article is that he alleged a “whisper campaign” from Evans’ supporters suggesting that Abrams is lesbian, and of course, a black lesbian would never be able to win a governor’s race in Georgia. At least that is the scuttlebutt. Nevertheless, Abrams is reported to maintain a healthy lead over Evans for the primary that will take place on May 22nd.

This is an example of how a combination of demographics and migration are changing the dynamics of Democratic politics in many areas of the country. Here is how Abrams described it during an interview with Jonathan Capehart.

“People think I’m not gonna win because they’re still remembering the Georgia of ‘Gone with the Wind’ or maybe they’re conflating it with Selma,” Abrams said in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “The reality is the Georgia that people think they know is not the Georgia that is.” And then, using her state as an example, Abrams diagnoses a bigger problem for the Democratic Party. “The problem is my party in particular, which tends to be the party that builds those coalitions, has not done the work of building the coalition of people of color,” she continued. “We’ve traditionally left them out of the politics, treated them as base voters, meaning they’ll show up if we have an election, and not as persuasion voters, who need to have the same degree of intensity and intentionality in our campaigning as we give to majority voters, to white voters.”…

“The issue is how much do we value the votes that we’re going after. And the challenge I’ve seen in the party, especially in the south, is that we do not place the same premium on voters of color that we do on white voters,” Abrams told me. “And until we place the same premium and treat them as equally valuable votes, we will not win elections where we could.” Then she added this. “Georgia Democrats sometimes leave as many as a million votes on the table. Not because they won’t vote, but because we don’t ask.”

If Abrams wins the Democratic primary, she will have the opportunity to put those claims to the test. Can she mobilize some of those one million votes that Georgia Democrats have left on the table? That is what could make this race one to watch.

P.S. There were a couple of asides about Abrams from that interview with Capehart that were fun to read. For example, she said, ““Look, politicians are like 15-year-old girls. We respond to money, peer pressure and attention.” There was also reference to the breadth of her skills, including the fact that she wrote romance novels while attending Yale Law School.

“At the same time I published my first novel, ‘Rules of Engagement,’ I also published my first tax article on the operational dissidence of the unrelated business income tax exemption,” Abrams said. “This was at the advent of Google and so, if you googled Stacey Abrams … and you saw both my romantic suspense novel and my tax article, it would be like reading romance by Alan Greenspan.”

I can’t help but think that the Democratic Party needs a whole lot more candidates like Stacey Abrams.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.